Gary Andersen has made it clear that it will take more then one player at the wide receiver position to help replace Jared Abbrederis production. But one name that keeps popping up in who could possibly help ease the loss is sophomore Rob Wheelwright.
Even though Wheelwright missed the majority of spring practices due to nagging injuries, the expectations have only risen entering his second year.
“Big expectations for Rob; he has to make that jump to that next level,” second year wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said. “He has to show consistency. He’s demonstrated some flashes but now it is time for him to be consistent week in and week out.”
Having his own high expectations, Wheelwright even switched his number to Abbrederis’ old number four after the season. After being frustrated by his spring, Wheelwright is anxious to show why he was so highly recruited out of Columbus (OH) Walnut Ridge.
“It was tough missing the spring and it was a real humbling experience to just kind of sit back and watch guys, but I had to just use it as motivation and kind of take a lot of mental reps during that time period,” said Wheelwright, who changed his number again to No.15 for fall. “Now I’m finally healthy and feeling great again so I’m ready to participate in fall camp.”
Although Wheelwright was limited physically during the spring, he felt he was able to take advantage of mental reps.
“I just sat back and looked at the big picture,” Wheelwright said. “Just seeing all of the little things, the little details coach tells us about, paying attention to the defense, getting a better feel and making sure the game slows down for me. That’s what I really looked at during the time period I was out.”
One of the biggest challenges for any player entering college football is adjusting to the speed of the college game, a struggle Wheelwright knows firsthand. Unable to find his niche, Wheelwright was limited to work mostly on special teams and in certain offensive packages.
While he caught only two passes last season, Wheelwright is happy that he didn’t redshirt since he feels more comfortable in the offense then he did a year ago. Before they stepped on the field for the first practices of call camp, Batty could tell his comfort level is a lot higher.
“I think everything is slowing down for him,” he said. “I can just listen to him talk and, just being with him the little bit during the summer, you hear him talk and he’s talking the language that we’re talking opposed to not quite being so sure.”
Wheelwright has been working everyday with the rest of the wide receivers since the end of spring, focusing on doing a better job of creating separation from the defensive back while continuing to make his route running crisp. While it remains to be seen who starts at quarterback between Tanner McEvoy and the incumbent Joel Stave, Wheelwright feels comfortable with his chemistry between either of the quarterbacks.
“Last year I caught the ball from both of them a lot,” Wheelwright said. “With Tanner moving to the defensive side of the ball, me and Stave have better chemistry together. Tanner and I still have to work on that but we seem to get better each and every day so that’s something will have to continue to work on through camp.”
Playing wide receiver in the Big Ten runs in Wheelwright’s family. His older brother, Ernie, spent four seasons playing for Minnesota from 2004-07 and recorded 2,434 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“He tells me all the time to stay motivated, keep working and every day come to practice as if someone is trying to take your spot,” Wheelwright said. “That’s something I always keep in my mind that someone else wants my spot and that I have to go out and work hard every day. I have an opportunity to play and show off my talents. With Abbrederis gone we need receivers to step up and make plays, and I want to be one of them.”
Splitting the beginning of fall camp into two different sessions will benefit all of the wide receivers, but it may have the biggest benefit for Wheelwright to make up for the reps he missed during spring football.
“They’ll all get a chance to go out and execute the offense, be more at ease with the day-to-day play calling, breaking the huddle and all the things that go into a pro style offense, but I think this will be beneficial to all of our guys, particularly Rob,” Beatty said. “He has to be able to catch the football consistently. Last year he ran the best routes next to Jared, and Jared probably ran the best routes in the country if you ask any scout. Rob ran the next best routes on the team so the route running part I don’t worry as much about but he’s got to be consistent with his hands.”