When rookie cornerback Mazzi Wilkins suits up Friday night for the Buccaneers in their preseason opener, he will complete a Tampa trifecta of sorts.
Wilkins played his prep football at Plant High School in South Tampa before spending his collegiate career at USF. Then, just before the Bucs began their 2019 training camp, he was added to their roster after an injury to another rookie corner.
“At first, it was like ‘wow.’ It was a surreal moment,” Wilkins said after practice on Aug. 2. “But now, settled in, it’s great just being part of the team and working hard. I’m just competing to earn my keep. I just want to contribute to the team the best way I can.”
Wilkins grew up a Bucs fan, and as a corner, it’s not surprising that his favorite player was 2019 Ring of Honor inductee Ronde Barber. The rookie was all smiles when he said he saw Barber looking on at the team’s practice.
In fact, the smile didn’t leave his face. Why should it? For the 6-foot corner, getting a chance to compete in an NFL training camp didn’t seem to be in the cards just a couple of weeks ago.
Before getting an opportunity with Tampa Bay, he was doing landscaping work and figuring out his football future. He said he had worked out for the XFL and received positive feedback there, but he was also thinking about getting his passport to potentially play in Canada.
Instead, here he is in an NFL camp... right in his hometown.
“It’s been a long [journey]. A lot of highs, a lot of lows, a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “Certain people had to leave out my life. I had to make tough decisions I didn’t want to make all the time, but it was all for the better. I know a time is gonna come where it’s gonna come back around. ...I’m happy I’m here and I just wanna keep working to get better every day.”
The 23-year-old Wilkins has stepped into a young secondary group. Vernon Hargreaves III, at 24, is one of the veterans of the group. Despite the secondary being a relative unknown coming into camp, that unit has been the most impressive through the first week-plus. Wilkins himself has been making some splash plays, including an interception of Jameis Winston on the first day of camp.
“It’s a lot of energy. We got a lot of goons in the room. It’s just great to learn from them,” Wilkins said. “To learn from guys like Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, those guys, they set great examples and they big bros, so I’m happy for it.”
Wilkins, like many undrafted free agents on the roster and across the league, face long odds to make the final 53-man roster out of camp. However, preseason games give those longshot kind of guys a chance to shine. Taking advantage of that chance is something the USF alum is looking to do, whether that’s to be noticed by decision-makers with the Bucs — or another organization.
That brings us to Friday. The Bucs will open up their preseason slate against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and Wilkins will get a chance to wear the uniform of the team he grew up rooting for. Admittedly, he said he’s not quite sure yet what that will feel like.
“I probably won’t know until the day of. It’s probably going to be a surreal feeling. It probably won’t hit me till I’m on the field,” he said. “But I’m ready for it. This is what I signed up for. Embrace the moment and keep pushing to earn my spot.”
As for his chances to make it in the NFL, Wilkins knows there’s work to do. But he feels confident in his ability to perform at the highest level of the game.
“I feel like I can definitely play in this league,” he said. “Of course, there’s wrinkles to iron out. There’s things I have to do to get better and I’m pushing to get better every day, but I definitely feel like I can play in this league.”