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November 5, 2009

Return to Jacksonville has put a smile back on Wilford's face

By: Jimmy Robertson

Ernest Wilford is back with his old team in Jacksonville, but is playing a new position - tight end.

On Feb. 29, 2008, Ernest Wilford’s life could not have been any better.

The former Tech wide receiver was coming off a solid season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, one that led to him to securing his financial future. Bill Parcells, the Miami Dolphins’ executive vice president of football operations, thought so much of Wilford that he inked him to a four-year deal worth $13 million. The deal included a $6 million signing bonus. Wilford headed to south Florida, with eager anticipation of wanting to prove Parcells right and also to prove he possessed the capabilities of being a No. 1 wide receiver.

Roughly 18 months later, he found himself back in Jacksonville after being let go by the Dolphins – and playing another position.

“It’s been tough,” admitted Wilford, who was released by the Dolphins on Aug. 24 and signed by Jacksonville the next day. “But that’s when you find out who you are as a person. Even when things weren’t going well [in Miami], I was strong-minded and confident in my abilities. I went out and practiced hard and I thought I would play more. Even when I wasn’t playing, I was supportive of my teammates. In the end, things just didn’t work out for me in Miami.”

Ernest Wilford left Tech as the all-time leader in career receptions with 126.

Last season, Wilford suffered through a miserable campaign. The Dolphins only activated him for seven games, and he finished the season with just three catches for 25 yards. This came after the 2007 season in which he caught a career-high 45 passes for the Jaguars, including three for touchdowns.

Miami head coach Tony Sparano and the staff asked Wilford to move to tight end following last season, and Wilford, ever the professional, agreed to the move. He played the position all throughout the preseason, even catching a 33-yard touchdown pass against the Jaguars in a preseason game. But the Dolphins decided to jettison him anyway a couple of weeks before the regular season started.

“I agreed to move to tight end because I thought if it would help the team be productive, then that’s what I wanted to do,” Wilford said. “I didn’t want to be a distraction. I wanted to do whatever would help the team. I thought I was doing well [at tight end]. They thought I wasn’t. That’s the bottom line.

“To be honest, the day they released me was such a relief. I was so excited to get out of there.”

It took him less than 24 hours to land with his old team, the Jaguars, who took him in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft. Interestingly, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio and his staff kept Wilford at tight end. He sees extensive action, having played in every game thus far this season and even starting on two occasions as of Nov. 1.

“I’m playing a lot,” Wilford said. “Playing at tight end is a new experience for me. Playing tight end and coming back here to Jacksonville has really helped rekindle my love for the game.

“I’ve had to make some adjustments, obviously. I have to study a lot more now that I’m at tight end. I’ve got to understand [defensive] fronts and understand coverages. Physically, I’ve got to be able to get off the line of scrimmage and I have to make blocks. I’m still trying to add weight – I’m at 225 pounds now. But even though I’m light for a tight end, my heart is still big.”

Wilford hopes that heart keeps him in Jacksonville for a long time. After all, it’s where he has enjoyed the most professional success, having spent his first four NFL seasons with the Jaguars and having caught 141 passes, including 14 for touchdowns, in that time.

Following that great 2007 season, he made the decision to leave Jacksonville because the dollar figures coming from Miami were better. And the Dolphins still continue to pay him the guaranteed portion of his salary even though they released him.

But anyone who knows Wilford knows that he isn’t about the money.

“Money doesn’t define who I am,” he said. “I care more about my good name than the money. I want my play to proceed me, and I’m thankful I had the opportunity to come back to this team and to contribute.

“I’m enjoying my role. I’ve embraced it and I’m doing well, and Jacksonville has embraced me. My second stint in Jacksonville is going very well. It’s been great.”