Former La Habra (Calif.) safety Madison Wheeler has fueled Highlanders' playoff run at running back

Coach Frank Mazzotta's scheme to move Madison Wheeler to running back has the Highlanders riding high and knocking off the big boys in the CIF playoffs.

La Habra (Calif.) football – once 1-3 to start the year – has emerged as the top underdog story in the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoff bracket largely because of “Mad Wheels.”

The Highlanders’ new, top running back option Madison "Mad Wheels" Wheeler also happens to be the most overlooked 2017 prospect in the talent-rich Orange County.  

Wheeler's power, speed and durability has turned this low-seeded La Habra team into the biggest giant killers south of Ventura County, with Oaks Christian and Redlands East Valley – and their handful of future college football prospects – getting sent home early to start their Thanksgiving plans. Wheeler, who doubled as a ball-hawking and line-crashing safety before making his transition to offense, has given the 8-4 Highlanders an extra workhorse back with 302 yards in these playoffs, including 215 against an Oaks Christian defense filled with Pac-12 targets.

Now the burning question: Is it time for Football Bowl Subdivision coaches to wake up and start putting Wheeler on their last-minute recruiting board?

Wheeler told Scout that he feels overlooked, but his biggest concern isn’t landing an FBS scholarship; it’s adding section title No. 8 on 801 Highlander Ave.

“I feel a little disrespected with being over looked, but it's keeping me hungry, focused, and on the grind,” Wheeler told Scout. “I try not to think about the offers right now. We are on the hunt for eight. And I'm just trying to do whatever I can do to get the CIF D2 title with my boys.”

Wheeler does hold one offer, but it’s from NCAA Division II program Minot State. He adds that many colleges coaches he’s talked to in the past have been more interested in his game at safety.

But his hard-nosed running has shined a light on his versatility, especially during this late push for championships. “The coaches moved me to starting running back the last game of league and going into the playoffs. Coach ‘Mo’ (head coach Frank Mazzotta) told me to be the difference maker there,” Wheeler said.

To call Wheeler the difference maker against the hungry Lions would be an understatement. Wheeler ran wild on the traditional Southern California powerhouse, as La Habra’s offensive line opened more lanes than Cal Trans and wore down Oaks Christian with 315 team rushing yards in the 35-28 first-round upset. Wheeler tacked on 87 yards and a touchdown the following week against a Redlands East Valley defense that featured UCLA defensive end commit Jaelan Phillips.  

Wheeler made it clear that he doesn’t want the credit. He wants his front five to get all the recognition.

“All the credit goes to the line. They stepped it up and they have been playing lights out so far,” Wheeler said.

Now, Wheeler and the rejuvenated Highlanders face their biggest task yet: A Black Friday semifinals home date against the division’s No. 2 seed Murrieta Valley, which is led by 2019 quarterback Hank Bachmeier and his combined 46 touchdowns, 38 coming through the air.

“We are turning a lot of heads after losing some games that we shouldn't have lost during the regular season,” Wheeler said. “We even lost our league winning streak (which ran from 2006 to 2016). But that was a wake-up call.

“We are all focused and we are taking this one game at a time,” Wheeler continued. “The defense is balling with Camron Rivas and Marcus Carrasco holding it down, Alan Giron making big plays, the defensive line being crazy fast and that helps out the DB’s. We are ready to make a huge statement. We have great fan support and the whole city is with us.”

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