COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- For most of the gathered media at the final Terps football presser before Thanksgiving at Tyser Tower, they had to do a double-take as to who the 6-foot-7, 315-pounder with the beard in the corner was.
You see, it was the first time in five years senior offensive tackle Jake Wheeler had been summoned to such an event, while his physical transformation (from a 235-pounder when he first arrived at College Park) could have made some look twice.
But to followers of the Maryland football situation these many years, it seemed like yesterday Wheeler and his family's prodigious brood (he is one of 11 children) rode a passenger van to College Park several summers ago to check out campus for the first time.
"We had the passenger van, and we were pulling a trailer behind us," Wheeler said in looking back at his first recruit visit to College Park. "The whole family."
And what a family it is, as older brother Jared played on the line at Miami and for a stint in the NFL, while sister Jenna played volleyball at Florida, among other athletic siblings in the Wheeler clan.
Now baby brother Jake is all grown up, starting for the first time on the Terps offensive line, and another "next man up" in a season full of them for Maryland football, 7-4 (4-3 Big Ten) heading into Senior Day tomorrow with hopes of bowls in sunny Florida, Wheeler's home state, this time around.
Wheeler didn't know until late in the week before Michigan that he would get the start at left tackle, though he was working hard each day and had raised his play a level during the last few weeks in practices. Randy Edsall told the media on Thursday of that game week that Wheeler would start, while Michael Dunn moved over to the right side and former starter Ryan Doyle to reserve in the shuffle. Edsall said the Terps needed more push on the left side to boost their sagging run game and offense.
"I guess for me it was not about more aggression, as I kept high aggression throughout the whole year," Wheeler said. "It was more about focusing on what I had to do, and I guess really baring down on technique."
The end result was big, as Wheeler, in his first career start, was credited with four 'pancake' blocks versus the Wolverines, while he helped a Terps run game finally get started, and sprung quarterback C.J. Brown for his 8-yard touchdown score to tie the game in the second half. The Terps liked the more physical presence Wheeler brought to that side, and he helped keep Brown more upright in pass-pro.
"On that play I am supposed to pull around the receiver and find the backer. But I saw the defensive end come off so I took him and it ended up working out really well," Wheeler said.
Wheeler has size, good feet, athleticism and long arms. He had just never been able to put it all together and translate it to the field beyond as a reserve tackle these last few years.
"For me, I have always had great feet, always had good technique," Wheeler said. "It was just about size and getting bigger. It was putting on weight to be able to move the guys, the big thing for me. It took a while but I finally got up to it."
The only problem, his family didn't find out until too late that he would get his first career start at Michigan, and it was too costly to fly to Ann Arbor last-minute.
"It was about $850 a ticket," Wheeler said. "But they are coming this weekend. But emotion was extremely high [for that game], I was very excited, my family, friends, all my teammates. They were very proud of me, so that is why I went out and played my best."
This weekend his parents, who texted him throughout the Michigan game (his dad sent him one that simply read, 'Bam') and brother Jared will be in attendance for Senior Day at Byrd Stadium, Wheeler's final home game as a Terrapin.
"He's going to start again this weekend, and again I think it is a great testimony to Jake to just continue to go out there and work hard every day. And that's what he did," Edsall said. "And you see things as a coach and you say, okay, I think we can make our team better because this is what's going on, this is what I see. We inserted him in there and I thought he went in there and did a really great job."
Edsall added that Wheeler's a great example for others in the program who have bided their time over the years but haven't seen much playing time.
"But now you take a look at where he is in the last 2-3 games of his career, first career start at Michigan at the Big House, pretty darn good. He'll be telling that story to his kids and grandkids and all those things," Edsall said.
Wheeler, who is a post-graduate student, is known among teammates as one of the nicer guys in the program, "one always laughing, smiling," said Terps senior linebacker L.A. Goree.
"Knowing Jake, knowing the type of kid he is, it's special to me because, for one, he is a great teammate," Goree added. "I can't find one person who doesn't like Jake. And two, he deserves it. He's tough, a big dude, he plays hard. And I know he was a part of that, the reason why we were able to run the ball down at Michigan, and keep the ball like that in the final minutes."
Said Terps senior defensive tackle Darius Kilgo:
"He is an aggressive guy coming off the line," Kilgo said. "I came in with Jake and I have seen him mature throughout the process and I am happy for him and glad he is getting this opportunity. I think he brings a lot of aggressive traits to the line of scrimmage."
Kilgo said he sees it every day at practice, but also wondered aloud why it hadn't translated to the playing field yet.
"But he has power, strength, he's athletic. And he's able to call out plays, so I think it really helps us run," Kilgo said.
Wheeler said he would love to go out on top with a win tomorrow, and his emotions are even higher this week in a game against his former head coach and recruiter, Ralph Friedgen, who leads Rutgers' offense as offensive coordinator. He said the wait has been worth every minute of it.
"Not once did I think Maryland wasn't the right choice for me," Wheeler said. "I knew when I came here I would have to work hard to get in the position I needed to be in. And it was just about keep working and keep grinding. It took a while [laugh], but finally I was able to seize my opportunity."
Said Wheeler, whose brother Jake is training now to get back in the League, of what the future may hold after his own resurgence this season:
"I absolutely believe there is a future for me in football," Wheeler said. "And right now, with the opportunities that I have now, I just want to really go out there and give it my all. It shows I can play with the big boys, in the big time."
Patience Pays off for Jake Wheeler
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