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Ravens Insider: Ravens draft pick Nate Wiggins was always on the fast track, even when he wanted to be Cam Newton

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Before Nate Wiggins and Devontez Walker became rookie teammates on the Ravens, selected three rounds apart in last week’s NFL draft, they were Atlantic Coast Conference rivals and already intimately familiar with each other.

Walker led North Carolina in touchdown catches last season and was a favorite target of quarterback Drake Maye, the third overall pick. Wiggins was Clemson’s star cornerback.

In a game last November at Memorial Stadium, Walker was the one charged with blocking Wiggins on a running play late in the first quarter when Wiggins broke free of his grasp and chased down and stripped running back Omarion Hampton of the ball at the goal line, turning a would-be 64-yard touchdown run for the Tar Heels into a touchback for the Tigers.

Three quarters later, with North Carolina trying to rally from an 11-point deficit with just over 2 1/2 minutes remaining, Walker was Maye’s target on the sideline when Wiggins jumped the route for a game-sealing interception. A year earlier, late in the third quarter of the ACC championship game, it was Wiggins who intercepted a pass from Maye and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown to end another comeback attempt.

“He’s probably the best player I’ve ever went against,” Walker said last week of Wiggins. “He was very fluid in his technique, very fast — he was one of the few guys that was hip-for-hip with me.”

Wiggins, whose 40-yard dash time of 4.28 seconds at the NFL scouting combine was second only to Texas wide receiver and Kansas City Chiefs first-round pick Xavier Worthy’s record 4.21 mark, has always been fast. It set him apart from his peers at an early age, but it only tells part of his story.

Born to Tamika Lucas — a single mother at age 19 who had to forgo a college basketball scholarship to raise two girls, Tanesha Lucas, now 31, and Jonae Wiggins, 23, on the south side of downtown Atlanta — Wiggins began playing football at age 4 at Pittman Park. His introduction to the game, however, was inauspicious: Wiggins routinely cried about having to go onto the field.

“He did not want to be on the field,” Lucas told The Baltimore Sun. “As he got comfortable and conquered his fear — he was a child who didn’t like to get hit — every time he got the ball he was running as fast as he could. One game he must’ve scored about 14 touchdowns. No one could catch him.

“When he started playing 8-and-under, I started seeing different plays and moves he was doing that a lot of kids had to be taught and it was natural for him. I knew he was special.”

Wiggins thought he could be, too.

In a fifth-grade book project titled “Pen, Paper Action!!! A Collection of Children’s Literature,” classmates penned short stories such as “The Roller Coaster of Death” and “Don’t Be Left Home Alone.” On page 17, Wiggins appropriately authored one called “The Football Superstar.”

He wrote about himself playing like and following in the steps of quarterback Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner who led Auburn to a national championship. In the story, Wiggins went on to be selected in the first round of the draft by the Seattle Seahawks and won the starting quarterback job in training camp. In the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, he completed 25 passes, including seven for touchdowns, with no interceptions, and he eventually propelled the Seahawks into the Super Bowl on a quarterback sneak.

In fifth grade, Ravens draft pick Nate Wiggins wrote a story about becoming an NFL quarterback. (Courtesy)
In fifth grade, Ravens draft pick Nate Wiggins wrote a story about becoming an NFL quarterback. (Courtesy)

“I used to play quarterback back in the day,” said Wiggins, who weighs about 60 pounds less than the 245-pound Newton, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers who became the 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player and three-time Pro Bowl selection. “I thought I was going to be Cam Newton. Turns out, I’m a cornerback.”

Wiggins also played basketball, baseball and idolized former Seahawks cornerback and three-time All-Pro Richard Sherman while growing up. By the time he reached his sophomore year at Grady High School, he was fully focused on football and being a cornerback.

That led to Lucas and Wiggins’ stepfather, Chad Baker, to connect with a trainer through Wiggins’ youth football coach, Kimario Smith, to strengthen the youngster’s gangly frame and hone his skills. Justin Miller is the founder and CEO of Pro-Fit Performance in suburban Atlanta. The former defensive back was a 2005 second-round pick of the New York Jets who spent six seasons in the NFL, including stints with the then-Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.

“He was super twitchy,” Miller, who also played at Clemson, told The Sun of the first time he met Wiggins. “If you saw him moving, he was gangly and goofy because he was [6 feet tall] at 13. Then he kind of flipped out of a turn during a drill and in my head I was like, ‘Oh, [crap], he’s gonna be special.’”

In Miller, along with James Davis, who came out of the same 12-and-under program Wiggins played in before making it to the NFL as a sixth-round pick of the Browns in 2009, the scrawny teen also saw a path.

An endless string of highlights didn’t hurt.

Looking for better competition his senior year of high school to increase his profile, Wiggins transferred to Westlake in Atlanta — the same school that has produced several high-profile NFL players, including Newton. Once there, Wiggins didn’t accumulate much film playing cornerback, though, coach Bobby May said.

“Nobody threw at him,” May told The Sun. “I don’t want to sound like that, but he didn’t make any plays on defense because everybody was scared of him.”

Given Wiggins’ exploits as a receiver on offense, it’s easy to understand why. In the first round of the Georgia 6A playoffs, he took a toss sweep 71 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. The next time he touched the ball, he scored on a 78-yard passing play. Two games later, he had five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.

“I didn’t really want to play cornerback,” Wiggins said. “I wanted to play receiver, but [my parents] were like, ‘There’s a lot of receivers that are fast.’ There are not that many cornerbacks that [are] tall that can do what I can do. I just started training, and it paid off.”

Added May: “He could probably be in the NFL playing receiver if he wanted to. He obviously made the right choice playing defensive back.”

That was evident at Clemson, where Wiggins landed after flipping his commitment to LSU.

Clemson cornerback Nate Wiggins (2) forces a fumble by North Carolina running back Omarion Hampton (28) just before the goal line during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Clemson cornerback Nate Wiggins forces a fumble by North Carolina running back Omarion Hampton just before the goal line on Nov. 18, preventing a touchdown. (Jacob Kupferman/AP)

Miller told Clemson defensive backs coach Mike Reed — a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles alongside Ravens coach John Harbaugh — that he thought Wiggins had tremendous potential as a defensive back. Still, there was a learning curve, on and off the field.

“It was a culture shock,” Wiggins’ stepfather told The Sun. “Coming up, he never had to get his own food, never had to drive anywhere. His time management was bad.

“Now he had to do it on his own. That was the hardest part for him; gotta be here, gotta be there, can’t wake up late.”

Wiggins, just 17 when he arrived as a freshman, struggled so much that he called his parents crying and wanting to transfer.

“I wouldn’t allow that because if you go somewhere else and you’re not happy you’re gonna want to transfer again and we’re not doing that,” Lucas told The Sun. “So I made him stay there and buy in and [told him] do what you need to do.”

When it came to football, though, there was no shortage of confidence.

As a freshman, Wiggins declared that nobody could outrun him. Before the start of the 2022 season, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei called him one of the best defensive backs in the country. Wiggins concurred, telling an audience of reporters, “Y’all are going to see this year. I got a show for you.”

It wasn’t long before he delivered on his promise.

Though he gave up four catches and 68 yards on six targets in a 51-45 double overtime win over Wake Forest, Wiggins came up with the game’s biggest play, breaking up a fourth-and-6 pass from Sam Hartman to receiver A.T. Perry in the end zone to seal the win.

Other performances stood out as well, including last season against Florida State and Miami. Against the Seminoles, he largely shut down Keon Coleman, a second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills this year. Against the Hurricanes, he showed off his blazing speed, chasing down speedy receiver Brashard Smith from behind and stripping him just as he got to the goal line on the 80-yard run (though Miami recovered the ball for a touchdown). Then there was Wiggins’ signature play of running down North Carolina’s Hampton, which Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said was “one of the greatest football plays I’ve ever seen.” Wiggins never had a doubt, saying, “I knew I was going to catch him.”

In 34 games over three seasons at Clemson, Wiggins finished with 50 tackles, 24 pass breakups, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, a sack and a blocked field goal attempt.

.Baltimore Ravens introduced their first-round draft pick Nate Wiggins , center, standing with head coach John Harbaugh, and executive vice president and general manager Eric DeCosta, during a news conference in Owings Mills, Md. (Kevin Richardson/Staff)
The Ravens introduce first-round draft pick Nate Wiggins alongside coach John Harbaugh, left, and executive vice president and general manager Eric DeCosta, right. (Kevin Richardson/Staff)

At 6 feet 1 and 173 pounds (though he has since added about 10 pounds), with blazing speed, terrific ball skills and big play ability, Wiggins was one of the top-rated cornerbacks in this year’s draft. Still, when the 20-year-old fell to No. 30 in the first round, he was not happy. He expected to be the first cornerback taken (Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell and Alabama’s Terrion Arnold went before him at Nos. 22 and 24 to the Eagles and Lions, respectively).

“It was crazy,” Wiggins said. “But, I’m here now, and I’m about to make everybody pay who looked over me. They’re going to see what they passed up.”

The Ravens had no intention of passing up on Wiggins if he was still there when they were on the clock, general manager Eric DeCosta said. That much was evident by how quickly they turned their pick in. Less than a minute had expired from their 10-minute allotment.

“He is a ridiculous athlete — very, very quick-footed, efficient,” DeCosta said. “He’s fast. He’s tough. He’s competitive. In our division, we play a lot of really good receivers, and you have to get off the field on third downs. … This is a guy that can come in here and play meaningful football right away for us.”

There’s also little concern over his thin frame.

“When you watch the tape; he comes up and smacks people,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what he does. He’s not afraid of the physical part of it at all. He’s a complete corner. First of all, he’s rangy, and he can run. He’s got very good feet, he changes direction, he puts his hands on people in press, and he runs up and tackles people with some physicality.”

First-year defensive coordinator Zach Orr was more blunt in his assessment: “We felt like we got the best defensive player in the draft.”

Orr also noted Wiggins’ football IQ, saying the team ended it’s 20-minute interview with him at the scouting combine after only a few minutes because the young corner checked all the boxes.

That includes off the field.

One of Wiggins’ goals is to give to those less fortunate, which is why at age 19 he started the Wiggs Worldwide Foundation for underprivileged members of the community where he grew up in Atlanta. It’s something he plans to extend to Baltimore, too.

“This world and life is hard,” Lucas told The Sun. “He always said if I ever make it I want to give back to the community where it started.”

Which is perhaps why after Wiggins was drafted, his mother thought about the beginning of his journey and the book project in which he wrote his NFL dreams into existence.

“We never thought anything about it and when all this came about I pulled it back out and reflected back onto that moment,” she said. “He had already written his own story. Now it’s time to just execute it all.”

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