Filling the Void 

After hot dog Terrell Owens comes

hot prospect Cedrick Wilson.

P>There may have been a legion of San Francisco 49er fans with fire in their eyes the day All-Pro receiver -- and All-World hot dog -- Terrell Owens left town to go play for the Philadelphia Eagles. Cedrick Wilson was not a part of that legion.

A fourth-year wide receiver with the 'Niners, Wilson finds himself in position to fill one of the most sizable voids in the NFL this season. And while he may not stuff a Sharpie pen, this graduate of Melrose High is on his way to greater recognition.

"I'm the leader of the receiving corps right now," says Wilson. "I'm the most experienced guy, having been in this system four years. But I still feel like a kid every time I step up to run a route or throw a block."

Over his first three seasons, Wilson's receiving figures were rather pedestrian (50 catches for 562 yards and three touchdowns). He's been a solid special-teamer, having averaged 21.8 yards on 53 kickoff returns. Despite his relatively small size (5'10", 180 pounds), Wilson's quickness and elusiveness have been evident since The Knoxville News-Sentinel rated him the second-best player in Tennessee as a senior quarterback at Melrose. Since arriving on the University of Tennessee campus in the fall of 1997, though, wide receiver has been Wilson's primary track. (Wilson ranks third alltime at Tennessee in receptions with 159 and fourth in receiving yardage with 2,137.) And the 25-year-old Memphian sees the 2004 season as his opportunity to leap atop the 'Niners' receiving depth chart.

"When I arrived three years ago," reflects Wilson, "the game was faster, more mental [than college], and I needed the experience that I've been able to get, sitting behind Terrell Owens, Tai Streets, and J.J. Stokes. I've had an opportunity to see how those guys prepare for the game, take notes, and prepare my body for the punishment that a receiver in the NFL will take."

And what kind of tutor was Owens? "Our games are totally different," says Wilson. "Terrell is physical, and I try to out-quick defensive backs, to get out of my breaks before they can react."

The challenge for Wilson will be getting open among head-hunting defensive backs long enough for a new 49er quarterback -- either Tim Rattay or Ken Dorsey -- to find him. (Wilson caught seven passes for 94 yards in the 49ers' opener, then sat out Sunday's game in New Orleans with a hamstring injury.) Last November against St. Louis, Wilson returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Three days later, he was named NFC special teams Player of the Week.

Wilson's entire family -- including two younger brothers and two younger sisters -- still live in Memphis, and Wilson admits this has been the toughest aspect of his burgeoning NFL career on the West Coast. (His brother Ellix is a freshman safety at UT.) As a measure of how seriously he takes his family, consider how Wilson gained full custody of his 8-year-old son, Cedrick Jr., in July 2003. He now shares a condo in Santa Clara with "Little Ced," his biggest fan and, at times, his biggest critic. "We watch my film together," chuckles Wilson, "and he's always telling me things I could do better.

"I've had to step up to the plate [as a father] and really manage my time and discipline myself. There are a lot of wild things that guys in my place can do. I've really dedicated myself to [my son]. He looks up to me at all times, so I try and set an example for him. I tell him that football is a privilege. I keep him in school year-round, because he can never get too much education."

If there's been a downside to playing pro football for Wilson, it's been in the 49ers' diminishing win total each season he's been in uniform. After a 12-4 campaign his rookie year, San Francisco finished 10-6 in 2002 and then missed the playoffs last year with a 7-9 mark. They've already dropped their first two games in 2004. Having won a national title with the 1998 Volunteers, the losing is hard for Wilson to tolerate.

"Losing is always tough," he says. "I didn't lose in little league, in high school, or college. Last year was difficult for us. We suffered a lot of injuries. But this is a new year, and I think we're looking excellent. Whether or not we're a playoff team, I can't say for sure. Our goal is the Super Bowl ... but we'll definitely surprise people." •

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