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Wheeler Primed for Breakout Year

Sept. 7, 2006

By Charles Odum, ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP) – Philip Wheeler says Georgia Tech “showed we could play with anybody in the nation” in its narrow loss to Notre Dame Saturday.

In the process, Wheeler showed he can play middle linebacker with anybody in the nation.

Georgia Tech’s coaches and players have been talking about Wheeler’s unique athletic skills since his arrival from Columbus in 2003. Last year, Wheeler emerged as a big-play leader on Tech’s defense in his first year as a starter.

If Wheeler’s performance against Notre Dame is an accurate indicator, the junior could be bound for an all-star season.

Wheeler led the Yellow Jackets (1-0) with a career-high 13 tackles, including two for losses. His aggressive sideline-to-sideline style made him the central figure of a defense which held high-powered Notre Dame to only two touchdowns in the 14-10 loss.

After learning behind such players as 2005 senior Gerris Wilkinson and 2006 senior KaMichael Hall, Wheeler now hopes to take his place as a leader on the defense.

“Hopefully, because I really think I go out and play my hardest every game,” he said. “I give my maximum effort every play like it’s my last. I try to, anyway. I think we all played with that effort.”

Wheeler was involved in the most debated play of the game when he was penalized for leading with his helmet while tackling Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. The penalty kept Notre Dame’s go-ahead touchdown drive alive, though after the game even Irish coach Charlie Weiss supported the complaints of Tech coach Chan Gailey by saying “it looked like a clean play.”

Wheeler, who started at outside linebacker last season, made his debut at middle linebacker Saturday. The first-game results point to a big season for the junior and the Yellow Jackets’ defense.

“I learned if we give that kind of effort, it’s going to be hard for teams to score on us,” Wheeler said. “They had a pretty difficult time scoring on us in the first half. It seemed like we were just everywhere. We were swarming to the ball, and that’s what we try to do.”

Some coaches may have been reluctant to move Wheeler from outside linebacker after his 2005 season. Wheeler tied for fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with four interceptions while also posting 3.5 quarterback sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery and four pass breakups.

Outside linebacker appeared to be the perfect spot for Wheeler to take advantage of his great speed and quickness as a pass-rusher, in pass coverage or as a run-stopper.

Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta moved Wheeler to the middle of the defense in the spring, and it appears Wheeler may make an even bigger impact playing inside.

“If you’re a guy who can make plays, you can make plays whether you’re inside or outside or a safety,” Gailey said. “You’re going to make plays. The one thing I give Jon Tenuta a lot of credit for is putting guys in position to do the best they can do. He is very good at that in my opinion.

“The difference in last year and this year is alignment. That’s it. There’s not going to be any difference in the play.”

Wheeler said he can best use his skills in the middle, where he can be involved in almost every play.

“I can use my quickness,” he said. “A lot of guards and tackles, I don’t think they’re fast enough to block me. I use my hands pretty well, I think. I just go 100 miles per hour to the ball. That’s what I try to do.”

Wheeler teams with Hall to give Tech a strong lead tandem at linebacker. But Gailey says there’s room for improvement.

“If you look at some of the assignments that Hall or Wheeler had, when they broke a run or completed a pass, we had some assignment miscues,” Gailey said. “We had some communication miscues that allowed them to make some critical plays at times. We can get better. Until they have no yards and no points, we’re not perfect.”

Wheeler agrees.

“We expect to get better,” he said. “And if we get better I think we can go a long way.”

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