Julius Wilkerson: Path To The NFL Draft

“You can be born a leader, you can be raised a leader. I think I was a little bit of both”

By Simon Carroll

By it’s very definition, leadership is ‘the ability of an individual or a group of people to influence and guide followers or members of an organization, society or team’. A trait that isn’t as common as you would think in the NFL, those draft prospects who show they can command the respect of their peers and lead them to greater things have an intangible that separates them from the rest.

Julius Wilkerson is a leader. He also happens to be a pretty good football player too. The former Wayne State and Davenport linebacker sits down with Simon Carroll to discuss his path to the NFL Draft:

Made In Mequon

If Julius Wilkerson wasn’t destined for an NFL career, he could easily run for Mayor. Comfortable and confident with an easy nature and a huge smile that never leaves his face the entire 45-minute conference call, the youngest of four children to Linda and Vincent makes you feel immediately relaxed in his presence. The first laugh is when I try to pronounce the name of his hometown – where football very quickly became his passion:

“I grew up in Mequon, a suburb of Milwaukee. My parents had a daycare in the city, multiple businesses, so I was always down there. But I started out my football career as an excuse not to go to daycare! I was five years old, playing in a peewee league at McGovern Park. My cousins already played for the team, and my brother was going to watch them practice. He asked if I wanted to tag along, and of course I did! I went down, somehow got into a throwing competition, and from then on I was the quarterback.”

For the record, it’s pronounced ‘Mehkwuhawn’. However you say it, it was a place that allowed Wilkerson to flourish on the gridiron, even if his young career was predominantly at quarterback:

“I played in that league until I was in fourth or fifth grade – they bumped me up a year. I went and played in a bigger league for a team called the Cardinals whilst at middle school, sort of a feeder league to our high school. At middle school I played linebacker as well as quarterback. That was my first taste of the position that would end up being my forever home eventually.”

Wilkerson had a front row seat to what football could offer him; his brother Vincent had already forged his own path to a college football career, first at Memphis before heading to Delta State. He now plies his trade with the Washington Wolfpack Arena League team.  It was this sibling inspiration that sowed the seeds for the kind of player Julius was destined to become:

“Me and my brother, we were always doing the same things together. My dad was really involved in our careers, and there was a healthy competition between us. Who could be better at this or that? And when he went to Memphis and on recruiting visits, my dad would always have me go along too – just to see how it worked, how coaches interacted with him. He taught me to pay attention to the details, to see who really wants you. I’d get put in training sessions with my brother too – with guys four years older than me. It made me comfortable working with people, leading people older, bigger, stronger – it’s a lesson that proved valuable at college and will be valuable in the league too.”

Hitting The Heights At Homestead

As alluded to, Julius Wilkerson had enjoyed a little sample of the linebacker position he would come to dominate at later in his career. But as he headed to Homestead High School, he was still a quarterback – and it wasn’t long before he tasted success with the Highlanders, even if it was a modest role on the team at first:

“I still played a bit of quarterback at high school! Freshman and sophomore year, I was still QB. They bumped me up again, so I was playing JV those two seasons – a starter as a sophomore. I even saw some time on varsity then too as part of the scout team. The team won a state title that year and I got in on a kickoff return unit – we were beating them pretty bad! I remember them attempting an onside kick and it started coming towards me. My heart was in my mouth, I was just praying that ball would bounce over me – the whole school was watching and I didn’t want to be the guy fumbling it in that moment! It eventually bounced towards someone else and I was saved.”

Wilkerson was desperate to play however he could, and despite stepping in under center when needed, the transition to defense had well and truly begun:

“After that, I started playing free safety. But I was still backup QB – and that year I had to step in when our starting quarterback went down. I finished the season under center and played two playoff games, winning one. We were so close to state! But after that, I made the full time move to linebacker for my senior season. I played outside mostly, but shifted inside for another playoff run.”

Wilkerson is evidently enjoying reminiscing, but humbly leaves out how dominant he was as a tackler – whatever position he played. Physical and athletic, his final season at Homestead saw him record 90 tackles, including 24 for loss. He earned First Team All-North Shore Conference accolades, and was also selected to the South Central All-Region First Team by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association. A two-year captain and a member of the academic honor roll every year, Julius had become a coach’s dream:

“I was playing free safety, but I was coming down and hitting people A LOT. They had me in the box a lot too, so really it was more of a strong safety role, but in that scheme you did everything. But I was quick and a hard hitter – and I was also a bit heavy for a safety, maybe 200lbs at that point. I also did track at that time too, so I had the speed to play linebacker, chase down plays. Even at college I played on the outside on occasion, and it’s some natural versatility I have to my game. But now, I love being in the middle – being the leader. I’m a bit of a control freak like that!”

Moving To The Motor City

College football recruiting is a fickle industry. And a recurring theme of small-school prospects’ stories is how their high school achievements were not suitably matched with interest. And so it went for Julius Wilkerson, whose own recruiting experience saw him head across Lake Michigan to Detroit – a journey he wouldn’t change for the world:

“My recruiting was a bit wild. I had been playing multiple positions through my career, had arrived at linebacker late. Between my junior and senior years I did a lot of camps, trying to get my name out there. Western Michigan, a lot of the Ivy League schools showed heavy interest, but for whatever reason it kinda faded out. I took a visit to Drake, and really liked it. Amazing campus that I fell in love with – and I committed there first. But actually, the first team to ever talk to me was Wayne State. I went to their camp, and they didn’t show much interest, so I assumed that was done. But eventually they came back around. My dad thought I hadn’t given the decision enough thought, and called Scott Wooster who was then the o-line coach with the Warriors. Coach Wooster came to my school, sat me down for two hours and talked to me about why I should reconsider. That meant a lot to me. He did it the right way too, professional, no bashing other schools. I took another visit to Wayne State, they ticked all the boxes financially, and it was a perfect fit.”

Redshirting in 2018, Wilkerson’s first taste of action for Wayne State came his second year on campus. It was a debut season to remember for the linebacker, who didn’t take long to establish himself as a contributor on defense, even if it was longer than he had hoped for – and was named defensive rookie of the year for his efforts:

“2019, I was second string, and then our starter got hurt. I ended up finishing out a couple of games, but then I got hurt the second to last game! I was kinda sick about that, but it was a great season for me. I eventually saw the field a lot more, and to win that accolade meant a lot. And for the team, it was special – we started out the year just BAD. We lost our first two games off the back of a tough season the year before. But we ended up rallying – and I learned so much more about myself. Until that point I was considering transferring, not getting the playing time I wanted. But my family, the support staff, they helped me out. Made me understand the process. So I stayed patient, made sure I was prepared, and when my name was called, I was ready.”

He was ready alright; in his first ever start, Wilkerson made TWENTY-THREE tackles, an incredible impact when his opportunity finally arrived. It was worth the wait:

“That was an amazing game. Ashland – I’ll never forget it. All my teammates were saying ‘Julius, you’re going off!’ – but at the time I had no idea. I just wanted to win this game – it had gone to double overtime. It doesn’t matter if I had 23 tackles if we don’t get the win! That was a way to make a statement – a great start. And I kept taking off from there.”

Making His Mark

Julius Wilkerson’s career had liftoff – but it was brought down to earth with a bump as college football dealt with the pandemic. Whilst the FBS fashioned some kind of schedule and D1 FCS had a spring season, football was curtailed at Wayne State. Wilkerson showed no rust when the Warriors returned to the gridiron a year later, racking up 104 tackles – but there is a definite sense of disappointment at how the campaign went from a team perspective:

“In 2020 I was named captain. But then COVID came and it was just a weird time all round. We had no football, but you had to stay in the groove, but all the starting and stopping made it difficult. 2021 was tough as well – tough for the team. I personally had a great year, but the team struggled. I was captain again, but it’s never good if your team is losing. I got named to the AFCA All-State Good Works Team that year, but I really wish we’d done better as a collective.”

Wilkerson didn’t know it at the time, but 2022 would be his final season in Detroit. Again, his smile is a little rueful as he bemoans the lack of wins, but despite his own season not reaching the heights of the previous campaign, it was still a year littered with personal accolades. Julius bowed out with a bang:

“2022 – I had a decent season but it wasn’t up to my own standards. Again, the team struggled; since 2020 and COVID, the team lost a lot of veterans – a lot of seniors and juniors who understandably just wanted to start their life. With so much insecurity and confusion about what’s coming, you can appreciate the difficult position they were in. But personally, again, I was named all-conference and named as a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy – a really prestigious honor. So it was always that anguish between lack of team success and personal achievements.”

When Wilkerson talks about the team record, you can feel his pain; three wins across his last two seasons at Wayne State was a tough pill to swallow for a man who is excelling at his sport. That said, it’s a testament to Julius’ character how he praises the coaching team he worked with those five years – paying particular attention to strength and conditioning coaches Coach ‘O’ and Coach Mendoza, as well as Coach Wooster; the man who recruited him to become a Warrior back in 2018. They still speak frequently to this day.

Departing For Davenport

At the end of the 2022 season, Julius Wilkerson had reached a crossroads in his career. Despite his fondness for Wayne State, he knew that a new challenge was needed in order for him to continue to grow as a football player. It meant making a brave decision, and Wilkerson did not shy away from it:

“To be honest, that last season at Wayne State, I knew I could have done more. I felt like I was stagnant in my life, both in and outside of football. And I never want to be that – I always want to be improving. To me, if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. I felt like I had done everything I could do at Wayne State, and it truly broke my heart to leave; but it was something I knew I had to do. It helped a new coaching staff had just come in, which helped me make the decision – I was gonna have my fourth linebacker coach in six years. To be fair to me as a player, I’d only been able to choose one of those – and I wanted to choose my next one.”

Wilkerson knew he might have to leave Detroit – but he wasn’t going to go just anywhere. The next destination had to be the right fit, and also meet the requirements of a unique set of priorities:

“All the advice told me I was going to play another year. So I entered my name into the transfer portal, but kept communication open with the Wayne State coaches – I wasn’t certain I would leave just yet. I wanted to have options, and the portal allows that for students now. I had interest from Group of Five, D1 schools, but for me the criteria was finding a place that would allow me to grow and flourish as a player and as a leader. Somewhere that needs me, and gave me the opportunity to make a big impact – not just go to a bigger school so I could say I’ve played at a higher level, but just play special teams. Leaving Wayne State for a rival school wasn’t the plan, a little unfortunate, but everyone understood – Davenport just offered me everything I wanted.”

Grand Rapids was the new home for Wilkerson, who made something of a lateral move to Davenport University – both geographically and in a football sense. The Panthers played in the same conference as Wayne State, and the schedule would see Julius return to his old stomping ground in what he referred to as a ‘spirited’ game last season. Davenport wiped the floor with the Warriors, 32-3 – but Wilkerson was classy enough not to mention the scoreline. Instead, he remained humble and thankful for his time there, whilst relishing the new opportunity he had:

“They had a plan for me, to improve my game and get me to the next level. It was clear and convincing, and I think it worked out – I definitely improved my game and grew as a footballer at Davenport. There was nothing heinous about leaving Wayne State, I actually only left in March because I was torn on the decision so much. But the opportunity was too good to turn down. They treated me like family, brought me in, and everything they told me was how it was. I had no complaints about Davenport. But homecoming games are gonna be interesting each year – especially if they play each other! I’m not sure who I’m gonna root for.”

Football, Education & Leadership

Julius Wilkerson wrapped up his college career with a strong season in Grand Rapids, registering 80 tackles as the Panthers went 8-2, just missing out on the playoffs. Vindicated in his decision to challenge himself in a new location, Wilkerson was quick to credit a vibrant culture at Davenport, that helped him take his game to another level:

“No regrets. Coach Sparky, he lights up a room! He’s an Energizer Bunny. I read a book called ‘Hell Bent’ by Skip Bayless, about the Cowboys’ 90’s dynasty. And Coach Sparky, he reminds me of Barry Switzer, a real players coach who lets you be you. I appreciated that about him; as a veteran, I enjoyed that trust he had in me. He treats you like a professional already, and as long as you do the job you’re supposed to, you’re gonna have no problems. But he always said ‘it’s exposed or exposure’, and if you’re exposed and show you’re not ready, he’ll get you out of there quick! To be able to do what he did in that short amount of time is wild. It’s a tribute to him and his staff, particularly Lavelle Walker the linebackers coach. He helped me polish my game. We just got snubbed for the playoffs this year, but that program is on the right track.”

As good as Wilkerson was on the field, he similarly excelled off it. At Wayne State, he was named to the AD’s honor roll every year with near enough a perfect GPA. And as mentioned he was also the only D2 player (and the first in Wayne State history) to be honored as a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy that year – known as the ‘Academic Heisman’, bestowed to the American college football player with the best combination of academics, community service, and on-field performance. For Wilkerson, this was just as important as any achievement on the gridiron:

“Education is extremely important. It’s always been a thing for me and my family; my dad was adamant from a young age that, if I didn’t get the grades, I wasn’t playing football. So it was always a focus – and not really because of fear of losing sport either. I’m a very competitive person, and I always competed with my older sister for grades, even at college! So academics have meant a lot to me, because I know whatever happens, football is not gonna last. I need to have another plan to transition, whenever that may be. But you also need to have other interests, or you’re just gonna burn out. I attribute a lot of that academic success to Wayne State and the support staff there, the teachers & professors, they were amazing. I envision myself being a lifelong learner, in or out of school. To me, that’s how you live life to the fullest.”

From high school right through college, Wilkerson has been lauded by coaches and teammates for his leadership ability. Instilled from him by his father from a young age, it’s something he is very passionate about – and actually majored in leadership studies as part of his masters degree at Davenport. Wilkerson put these skills to good use off the field too, being co-President of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) for multiple years and a member of the Wayne State Student Leadership Council. This isn’t just paying lip service to the idea – Wilkerson literally oozes leadership, and he’s proud of it too:

“This last year, being named captain at Davenport, it attests to the leadership skills I worked hard on at Wayne State. My new coaches, teammates, they didn’t know me, but they took me in and wanted me to be their leader. That team vote nearly brought a tear to my eye – to command that respect in such a short time meant a lot. Leadership was instilled in me by my dad too – he’s had a big effect on my career! Whether it was reading different books or watching inspiring videos, he wanted me to be a leader as a man, not just on a football field. It was fun – especially the SAAC committee. I was kinda groomed for it; my teammate Deiontae Nicholas was the former president, and he was a great role model. To be a leader, you need to be a follower first, and I was on his coattails the whole year. I wanted to emulate him, and I think I did – I got to affect so much at my school on that committee, and make sure everyone’s voice was heard.”

Disproving Draft Perceptions

Speed, physicality, and leadership – Julius Wilkerson looks to take his carefully honed set of skills to the NFL as he embarks upon another journey. That begins with the draft process, a challenge that Wilkerson is characteristically meeting head on. He knows he has what it takes to succeed – now, it’s time to show everyone else:

“I’m in Nashville, Tennessee training with X3. The scouts, they said they wanna see me run a great forty time, and I’m very prepared to do so. I’m looking forward to turning some heads with that! But I’m focused on where I get paid most, and that’s sideline to sideline movement, quick bursts and showing I’m strong and explosive. I want them to see I’m capable of being both in and out of the box – they can move me around. I’m gonna show some great numbers, show some great stuff at my pro day, and prove to them and myself that I am the guy that I say I am. I’m no fraud – I belong here, and at the NFL level, and I have the talent to do so.”

The next opportunity for him to showcase his talents is at his pro day on March 12th – a Great Lakes Conference event held at Saginaw Valley State. Wilkerson will be ready, and has already had the chance to work for NFL scouts at the CGS All-Star event in Fort Worth back in January. Julius was happy with the impression he made:

“I think it was a really good experience, even outside of being able to meet with teams. The guys at CGS do a really good job with you explaining life in the league and life past the league – and help you set yourself up best in readiness for the ride. My time there, the thing I did best was showing I could play man football. Playing with guys a division above us, showing I could compete despite the bad rap that D2 schools sometimes get. I held my own, and excelled in drills! I had a really good day in the box with blitz packages too – I just showed my versatility.”

We discuss his draft stock. Wilkerson is confident that scouts are aware of his instincts, athleticism and leadership. But as with any draft prospect, he’s battling certain narratives – and two of which are very much out of his control:

“Everyone wants to say that I’m undersized. But if you look in the league nowadays, there’s more and more linebackers looking like me. Scouts have jobs to protect, and they have to uncover every last detail and split hairs, I get it. But 6’1”, looking to play at around 235lbs, it’s not like I’m tiny – I’ll be fine. And then obviously I’m a small school guy, so I’m fighting that narrative a little. You gotta be better than the best to overcome that stigma! Everything else, my testing will tell them I can do it all athletically. But that’s not to say I’m not constantly looking to get better – shedding blocks, power, moving fluidly, handwork – I’m always improving.”

"Football Is Football - I Can Play Any Scheme"

As we round out the interview, I ask Julius Wilkerson about his role at the next level. As far as NFL defenses go, middle linebacker is fairly universal – no matter the scheme, each team needs a thumper who can move at the second level. Wilkerson has shown he can do that – but his history of dominating in different defenses means that, no matter the situation he finds himself in at the next level, he’s confident he can thrive:

“Thankfully to Wayne State and Davenport, with the different coaching staffs and defenses I played on, I’ve seen a lot of schemes. I’ve played 4-3, 4-2-5, a 3-3 Stack, 3-4, Bear – I’ve pretty much played every defense you can think of. Obviously there’s going to be one you’re most familiar with, and that for me would be a 4-3 Mike Linebacker. But I went down to the CGS and played in a 3-4 with a day’s notice and did pretty good! Football is football – I can play any scheme. Wherever somebody needs me, thinks I can offer value, that’s where I want to go. As a small school guy it might be more advantageous to hit a scheme I know inside out, as you aren’t necessarily afforded the same time or opportunity to show what you can do as others are. But I’m not opposed to doing the hard work – I’ve done it many times before, and always been a success.”

With less than two months until draft weekend, Wilkerson will have a heavy schedule ahead of him. Once a kid growing up in Mequon, Wisconsin, he’s making a concerted effort to be in and around his hometown as the final steps on a near-twenty year journey are taken:

“Yeah I’m gonna be heading back home. I’ll be in and out of Milwaukee around pro day, and any visits I need to make. And it will be nice to see my family a bit more before things start to get really hectic! This first year is always the busiest one, but it’s a sacrifice I hope to make. Draft weekend itself, it’s gonna be pretty low-key, sitting around with my family, have it on in the background. I’m looking forward to just chilling out, reconnecting, and hopefully celebrating if I hear my name called.”

Imagining Julius Wilkerson without a smile on his face is difficult, so I can only think how big it will be when he learns his fate. A competitor, a scholar, a leader, but most of all a tremendous human being, it’s impossible not to root for him through a process that can be tough for small-school prospects. That said, Wilkerson is not a man I would bet against. And if that moment comes, he’ll be thankful to those who have backed him to this point:

“It would be a blessing – being able to look at that little kid inside of me and say ‘we did it’. Turn around to my family and think of all the sacrifices that they put in for me. All those who have had a positive affect on my career; all the great coaches and trainers – to show it was all worth it, I’ll be very proud to do that. I know I’m not going to fail, but to see the joy in everyone’s faces will be a big moment. And I know you’re not done there – I’ve just started the grind. But to be able to hit that checkpoint and then go higher, it’s going to mean so much.”

Mock Draft





A huge thank you to Julius for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchdown wishes him well in his future career.