MADISON – Feeling like his name was constantly on the injury report over the last three seasons, Wisconsin receiver Rob Wheelwright had a goal to not let a nagging problem cost him considerable opportunities during his final season.
So imagine his surprise when he woke up the day after Wisconsin’s overtime loss to Ohio State and could hardly move his leg after not having any kind of injury setbacks.
“I was like, OK, I was not feeling like this last night,” Wheelwright recalled. “I got in there, talked to the trainers and really took it day by day.”
Wheelwright’s injury history is long and overwhelming, but the senior took solace that the mysterious injury only cost him a handful of practices and limited work against Iowa. He’s full go and hopes to be an impact player for No.11 Wisconsin when it hosts No.7 Nebraska (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) Saturday night.
“It was tough but I’m just happy we got a win,” Wheelwright said. “I don’t have to stress with me not able to play and us losing. I’m glad we got a win and was able to get in there and do the little things that I could.”
Leg issues have been common for Wheelwright, who has seen injuries linger to the point where missed practices add up and the window of opportunity closes. Even when he made it through camp, Wheelwright suffered a broken leg that cost him the final four games of the regular season.
He’s been mostly healthy ever since, taking a better approach to taking care of his body and making sure he’s on the field to provide another option.
Through seven games Wheelwright has 20 catches for 310 yards, doing so mostly facing bracketed coverage with a cornerback lined up across from him and a safety over the top. It’s similar to the same scheme teams used to defend Alex Erickson last year, allowing Wheelwright to average four catches a game before his injury.
Now his presence is opening up opportunities for tight end Troy Fumagalli (25 catches for 303 yards) and receiver Jazz Peavy (24 catches for 383 yards), not to mention clear out the flats so tailbacks Dare Ogunbowale, Corey Clement, Alec Ingold and Austin Ramesh can do some damage.
“Lately Jazz has been getting a lot of looks and is making a lot of plays,” Wheelwright said. “If they key on one of us, someone else is open and someone else is going to make plays and lead this team, especially when it comes to receiving. We have a lot of unselfish guys, guys that really just want to go out there and win.”
Emotional Saturday for Gaglianone
In a way, junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone is glad that he doesn’t have to kick field goals Saturday when the Huskers come to town. Out for the season following back surgery in late September, Gaglianone acknowledged the emotional component – calling it an “extreme and different situation” - with Wisconsin facing a Nebraska team that is now without his good friend, punter Sam Foltz.
“It kind of brings all the memories back,” Gaglianone said. “It’s just hard when you have all the families coming, and it’s kind of the place close to where it all happened … It’s going to be very emotional just being there and not being with Sam and not playing the game as well.”
Foltz died in a single car accident, along with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, near Waukesha in late July when a number of college football specialists had gathered for a Kohl’s Kicking camp.
He met Foltz years early at the same Kohl’s Kicking camp when Gaglianone was a freshman. Roughly 15 minutes after meeting Foltz, he was calling Gaglianone by his first name.
“Just kind of acted like he knew me,” Gaglianone said. “He helped me out with some stuff in the camp. I became a coach for the second portion of the camp, and he was an older guy that had been running camps. I was kind of his partner and he was sort of mentoring me through the process. That’s where I first saw how he acted around the kids and how he influenced the younger people that looked up to him.”
Gaglianone has also befriended Foltz’s father, Gerald, who he met when he traveled to Nebraska for the funeral. Foltz’s parents will be in Madison for the game and Gaglianone said he’s spoken with Gerald every Friday since the accident. He said he’ll spend time with the family at Nebraska’s team hotel Friday night.
“Ever since (the funeral), he’s been calling me and talking to me and just kind of keeping up with the season,” Gaglianone said. “Since the accident, he’s been giving me more calls just wondering how I’m doing and how I’m dealing with all that and just keeping me motivated … It’s been good having his support and knowing that they’re doing fine and they’re doing well with all the things they’re dealing with on their plate.”
Gaglianone has become closer with Nebraska kicker Drew Brown over the past few months, as well as other Cornhuskers players who contacted him after he decided to switch his jersey number. It’s part of the reason why Gaglianone, who switched his number from No.10 to Foltz’s No.27 prior to the season, said he’ll join Brown in carrying Foltz’s jersey onto the field for pregame warmups.
“He’s a very strong kid and I think he’s handling as well as he could,” Gaglianone said of Brown, “but it’s tough when everything changes.”
Four weeks removed from his back surgery, Gaglianone said he was cleared Tuesday for “little stuff” such as using the underwater treadmill for 15 minutes. He said he expects to be 100 percent by the spring and will likely qualifies for an N.C.A.A. medical hardship wavier, meaning he could regain his year of eligibility and enter next season as a redshirt junior.