Russell Wilson takes over for Jon Gruden as ESPN’s mentor to upcoming NFL draft picks
Russell Wilson is so organized and so faithful to his meticulous schedule that he wears two watches.
“Actually,” he said, motioning to the thin band on his right wrist, “this one tracks my sleep.”
And there it is. Proof that Wilson does sleep. His to-do list suggests otherwise, considering his role as quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, his flirtation with the New York Yankees, the development of his TraceMe app — which gives his most ardent fans an inside look at his life — his West2East production company, and his weekly visits to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Wilson’s latest endeavor is particularly intriguing. He’s stepping into the ESPN void created when Jon Gruden left the network to coach the Oakland Raiders and ended the popular “Gruden’s QB Camp” series.
ESPN will debut “QB2QB with Russell Wilson” this month, four 30-minute episodes of the Super Bowl-winning quarterback mentoring four top prospects in advance of the NFL draft: quarterbacks Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State and J.T. Barrett of Ohio State; and running back Saquon Barkley of Penn State. The first episode airs April 17.
The shows were shot recently on the UCLA campus, with the network turning the second floor of the Wasserman Football Center into a set that looked like Wilson’s living room, with a big L-shaped couch in front of a wall of windows overlooking the Bruins’ practice fields.
Wilson has an in-depth conversation with one player per episode about football and life in general, and the two also meet with Wilson’s cognitive coach, Trevor Moawad, to go over self-awareness and mental-skills training. Unlike Gruden’s QB Camp, there is no on-field work with the player.
“I can’t wait for this. It’s gold,” Wilson said. “It’s just a special show where you really get to see who these young men are, and what they’re going to become. They really get raw and honest and just truthful about their experiences in life.”
Wilson offers an interesting perspective because he wasn’t the chosen one or the top overall pick. He was a third-round selection by Seattle in 2012, and even then the Seahawks were criticized because they had just poured a lot of money into quarterback Matt Flynn. At 5 feet, 11 inches, Wilson was undersized and widely overlooked.
He would play his way into the starting role, win one Super Bowl then lose the next with a goal-line interception at the end.
ESPN’s Jay Rothman, who produces “Monday Night Football” and took “Gruden’s QB Camp” from an obscure curiosity to a rite of passage for the top quarterbacks in the draft each year, said he isn’t trying to recreate that show with Wilson.
“This is different, and it’s going to feel different,” Rothman said. “Part of it was that fans tuned into ‘QB Camp’ because, name your favorite late-night show, Jon was that kind of guy. Lots of fans tuned in for the ‘Chuckie’ factor.
“I don’t think this [show] is going to have that. This is going to be interesting in a different way, because we have a current player who’s super thoughtful and super interesting, who’s putting himself out there and giving back.”
That Wilson is currently in the league and will be competing against these players gives the show a unique wrinkle. Rothman, who came up with the idea of featuring him while at this year’s Pro Bowl, said he reached out to the Seahawks first to inform them and assure them there wouldn’t be any conflicts of interest.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll didn’t have a problem with the idea.
“I think it’s unusual for anybody other than Gruden to do it,” Carroll said. “Jon’s been such a fixture. It’s something that’s dear to Russell’s heart, the whole quarterbacking and the art of it. I think he’s really going to have fun with it. Get a chance to meet some guys and share some stuff. I don’t think it’s any big deal.”
Wilson has some fun with the players too, putting them on the spot to recite one of their favorite movie lines and sing a few bars from a song they like. During Rudolph’s one-on-one, for instance, he acted out Liam Neeson’s ransom scene from “Taken,” and sheepishly did his best Garth Brooks for “Friends in Low Places.”
“This is about more than football,” Wilson said. “This is about life and preparation for your next [stage of] life and what that looks like.”
Gruden thinks ESPN got the right guy.
“I’ve got an old saying: You don’t stay the same, you either get better or worse,” Gruden said. “Obviously, ESPN got better. They get a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. He’ll do a great job, I’m sure. It will be a different twist, a refreshing approach.”
But would he want his quarterback hosting such a show? That’s a different story. He’d leave those obligations to the competition.
“I wish they were using somebody from the AFC West,” Gruden said with a smile. “I wish they were using some Kansas City Chiefs, some Denver Broncos. I wish [Chargers quarterback] Philip Rivers had done it.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
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