Cale Garrett always made a point to stay close to Cameron Wilkins.

As Garrett’s backup at middle linebacker for Missouri the first five games this season, Wilkins constantly heard how he was one play away from starting, one moment from full-time action. Garrett himself would imply that very sentiment.

Preparation behind the scenes has turned into a huge opportunity for Wilkins, a sophomore who will make his first collegiate start Saturday in the Tigers' homecoming matchup against Mississippi. Implication has become reality: He’s a starting defender in the Southeastern Conference.

Garrett’s season is likely over after having pectoral surgery Tuesday for an injury suffered last weekend in a blowout win against Troy.

Wilkins is the next man up — tasked with filling a void left by arguably the most valuable MU player so far this season.

“There are some big shoes," Wilkins said, "but I think everybody plays differently and I can fill it in my own way.”

Starting for the Tigers is a dream come true for Wilkins. How it happened was a nightmare for Missouri.

Upon Garrett realizing the severity of his injury, which he played through in the first half to make two interceptions last week, the senior leader pulled Wilkins aside.

“Cale came to the sideline and said, ‘Hey Cam, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but just be ready at all times because your chance will come up soon,’” Wilkins said of his conversation with Garrett.

Missouri head coach Barry Odom made it official Tuesday: Wilkins is the new starter, alongside fellow linebacker Nick Bolton.

“Y’all saw (Garrett’s) stats. I don’t like the way it happened either, but Cale put me in the right position,” Wilkins said. “It’s just an amazing opportunity for me.”

Even with being thrown right into the fire against upstart Ole Miss, Wilkins said he is 100% confident he’s ready to step in and perform at a high level.

It’s been about two years since Wilkins last started a football game. That dates back to his senior season at Del Valle High School, located on the outskirts of Austin, Texas.

Del Valle plays in Texas’ largest prep football classification — comprised of schools with over 2,100 students, including Southlake Carroll, where Chase Daniel once starred.

Wilkins was thrust into a starting varsity spot early in his high school journey, meaning the transition from backup to first-teamer isn’t a completely new experience.

Wilkins played three positions at Del Valle. In addition to his preferred linebacker spot, he saw time as a running back and wide receiver.

“Cam is a phenomenal kid,” said Charles Burton, Del Valle’s head coach. “He’s one of those kids that was always a hard worker and he's consistent. He's going to show up every day to put in work. He takes coaching well and hard coaching well also, and he's got a great feel for the game.”

Odom had a few options for Garrett’s replacement as an MU starter. Yes, Wilkins had the inside track as he’s most comfortable at that position, but Odom could’ve chosen Jamal Brooks, the backup at the weakside linebacker position, or asked a member of the secondary to bulk up.

Nevertheless, Wilkins got the nod.

“He’s really athletic and he's a smart player,” Odom said of Wilkins. “He doesn't need to try to do too much. He needs to do what's his responsibility and doing his job within the call. If he does just that, we’ll be just fine.”

That’s the main initial difference between Garrett and Wilkins. If healthy against Ole Miss, Garrett would be expected to fly around the field and have a shot a breaking the deadlock the co-captain currently holds with Erik McMillan for most defensive touchdowns (3) in a single Missouri season.

Wilkins, on the other hand, has gotten his feet wet with special teams and taken the field defensively only when the Tigers have a huge lead.

After the final whistle against Ole Miss, unproven can no longer be an adjective used to describe Wilkins. The sophomore will be exposed, for better or worse.

“We’re not asking one person to make up for (Garrett’s) production,” Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “But collectively as a defense, in order to keep playing at a high level, that production has to come from somewhere. ... I’m not looking for Cam to be anything other than Cam.

“He's obviously got the physical makeup that you want in an SEC linebacker. He’s tough, he's physical, he can run and he's a smart kid. We look forward to watching him develop. His legacy starts now and there's no time like the present.”

Spending so much time around Garrett, Wilkins has modeled his game after his predecessor. The linebacker duo became close enough that Wilkins made sure to call Garrett on Tuesday to make sure he was still in high spirits after his surgery.

Even with Wilkins' care for his teammate and friend, there’s a task at hand. Missouri is looking to win its fifth straight game — but its first this season without Garrett. In each of the Tigers' previous four victories, a linebacker scored a touchdown.

The Rebels may decide to attack Wilkins because of his inexperience compared to those around him with between-the-tackles runs or short passes across the middle.

Ole Miss likely would have diverted those plans with a playmaker like Garrett in those spots.

“I don't really expect any drop-off between (Wilkins) and Cale,” Missouri safety Khalil Oliver said. “(Wilkins) is a fantastic player. ... I think he’s ready. He’s an old-school type of linebacker, big shoulder pads, no tape — he's ready to go.”

One week ago, the thought of Wilkins being an integral part of Missouri's season was distant.

Circumstances have changed.

“They can expect a physical player that's always going to talk and be positive,” Wilkins said of his playing style. “You’re never going to hear bad things about me.”

Back at Del Valle, Burton will huddle around a television Saturday with fellow coaches and administrators, tuned into ESPN2 to get a glimpse of Wilkins on the national stage.

“He’s going to give it all he’s got,” Burton said of the new starter. “The kid can play ball, and hopefully that's able to show now that he's got his chance.”

eblum@columbiatribune.com

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