Four-star Buffalo (N.Y.) Canisius tight end/defensive end prospect Tyrone Wheatley Jr. enjoyed his time in the sun during the week leading up to the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Carson, Calif.
“I think it’s snowing back home right now,” Wheatley Jr. said after practice last week. “I’m pretty sure when we get back, I’m going to have to go out and shovel so that we can get in the driveway, but I’m living it up right now. The other day I was walking around in shorts and t-shirt with my slides on. It’s been nice.”
Though the Wheatley family lives in upstate New York, the sunshine and warmth of California wasn’t a brand new experience for Tyrone Jr. He lived in Northern California when his father, Tyrone Wheatley Sr., played with the Oakland Raiders for six years.
With the whole family in tow, the trip to the Semper Fi Bowl was an opportunity for the Wheatleys to not only get a reprieve from the chilly Northeast, but also a chance to see family and friends. Wheatley Jr. said he hadn’t seen all of his family in California since 2005 after his dad left the Raiders following his retirement from the NFL.
Wheatley Jr. smiled when asked about having his own cheering section at the game.
“Oh yeah, it’s awesome. Even my dad was here. He got to come out, my special teams coordinator [from Canisius], all of my family in California, so it was just nice seeing everyone.”
Of course, it wasn’t his first trip back to the Golden State. Wheatley Jr. also recently had a weekend trip to California in December when he took an official visit to USC. A visit that stacked the deck thus far in his recruitment.
“USC set the bar. I know it was my first visit, but I had a great time,” he said.
The trip presented a familiar face in USC tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo, who played in Oakland with Wheatley Sr. The official visit also reunited Tuiasosopo’s wife and Mrs. Wheatley, giving them a chance to catch up. The Trojans are hoping to give the Wheatley family a reason to regularly visit Southern California.
“Coach Tui just wants me to come,” Wheatley Jr. said with a chuckle last week. “He just wants me to come. I had a great time on the visit. I love Coach Tui. My host was Zach Banner and he’s a great guy. I had a great time with him and hung out with Cody Kessler and all those guys. They have really good young guys, so they’re going to have a good team next year.”
While the Trojans are looking at Wheatley Jr. primarily as a tight end, his versatility fits in with the recruiting direction Steve Sarkisian has embraced since taking over the program. The Trojans often target two-way players and give them a shot on both sides before finding a final destination.
“Well, Coach Tui wants me to play tight end, but they just kind of want me to come there. They said tight end/d-end. Who knows? If I get in the weight program and training table and put on another 20 [pounds], I could be playing left tackle. We’ll see what happens.”
Choosing which position is even a tough decision for Wheatley. While Tyrone Sr. said during the Semper Fi Bowl broadcast that he would have his son playing defensive end, the junior Wheatley prefers to be on the offensive side of the ball like his father was.
“I like both," said junior. "That’s the biggest problem of my decision kind of. I’ve got to figure that out first. I’ll narrow it down some more for me to play tight end or defensive end primarily. I like tight end more, but I’m probably a better defensive end.”
During the Semper Fi Bowl, Wheatley Jr. was playing exclusively at tight end. He predicted before the game that he would “probably do alright,” but if he lined up on the defensive side he felt he would “be a monster.” In the game, he didn’t see much action in the passing game as the East squad completed just two passes for 12 yards to the tight ends.
None of those went to Wheatley, who was open several times, but never caught the quarterbacks’ eye. He did finish with one uncredited tackle when he brought down a West defensive back that had recovered a fumble.
“We didn’t get much action, but that’s how the bowl game was. Most of the pass plays, it wasn’t the quarterback really reading [the defense]. It was, if the coach says this side, then [the quarterback] is only reading that side. I beat some linebackers and I was open, but it was just for show for the folks at home.”
That didn’t stop Wheatley from enjoying his Semper Fi Bowl experience. During practice, he got a new opportunity to play with and against Division I talent across the board — something that is rare playing high school ball in New York.
“It’s been awesome,” Wheatley said after the final practice. “One of our quarterbacks is an Ohio State commit, a Vanderbilt commit and the other guy is making his decision at the game. Man, all those guys are really good. High caliber quarterbacks. I’m not really used to that at my school. The quarterback is my friend, but he’s like a 5-foot-10, Canadian kid, so it’s a lot different. It’s great competition.”
After the game, he reiterated his love of the week-long experience.
“I think it’s the best. I mean the Marines and everything we did. These guys, I’ve been with them for four or five days and I feel like a family. I had a great time.”
During the week leading up to the game, Wheatley got an opportunity to hang out with USC commits Noah Jefferson and Tristan Payton, who was named game MVP after catching two touchdown passes and going over 100 yards receiving in the East’s 24-3 victory.
Wheatley said Jefferson is “like the classic USC lineman” because the defensive lineman is a big boy with a big personality. Payton was working hard to recruit Wheatley to join the duo at USC, going as far as making Wheatley throw up the two-fingered “Fight On!” hand symbol before Payton would take a picture with him after the game.
“He kept coming up [to me], ‘Hey bruh…me and you! USC. We gonna take over,” Wheatley said with a smile while mimicking Payton’s quick talk and higher pitched voice. “I said, ‘We’ll see man.’”
But USC isn’t the only school vying for Wheatley’s services for the next four years. He will soon hit the road for at least three more visits. He is scheduled to visit Alabama next weekend with trips to UCLA and Oregon the two final weekends of the month leading up to a National Signing Day decision.
Michigan, Penn State and Auburn also appear to be in the mix. Many people thought Michigan would jump to the top of Wheatley Jr.’s list when Jim Harbaugh was named the head coach and even more so when Wheatley Sr. was named the Wolverines’ running back coach.
But Wheatley Jr. to Michigan is no done deal.
At the Semper Fi Bowl, Wheatley Jr. said he hadn’t heard from Harbaugh since the former Stanford coach had left the San Francisco 49ers to return to the college ranks. Wheatley Jr. also said he had no plans to change his time frame for a decision based on the coaching change.
In a follow-up phone conversation on Saturday, Wheatley Jr. said his father’s new job hasn’t really affected him and that he doesn’t “have any plans at Ann Arbor.” With his dad coaching running backs, Wheatley Jr. doesn’t think there would be much of a difference between playing for Michigan or at another school.
“He won’t really be my coach if I were to go there. Either way, wherever I go, I’ll still talk to him and he’ll still give me advice and all that stuff when it comes to football. I don’t really think it makes that big of a difference to be working with him everyday.”
Instead of focusing on Michigan and his father’s new job, Wheatley Jr. is keyed in on his remaining visits. Then he plans to sit down, compare all the schools and from there he’ll make his decision on where he’ll spend his next four Januarys — whether he’ll be enjoying the nice, sunny weather of Los Angeles, the moderate winters of Alabama or if he’ll remain in the snowy Northern winters.