Archive for Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Keegan: Wheeler can turn it on

August 22, 2007


Adrenaline, that magic potion manufactured by the human body, affects different athletes in different ways. It makes some panic, even choke. It enhances the performance of others, making them see more clearly, react more swiftly, explode more forcefully.

Most athletes fall into one of two groups. They either are incubator athletes who need conditions to be just so in order to perform well, or they are adrenaline athletes, at their best in pressure-loaded situations.

Think back to Little League baseball days. Incubator athletes came home from the ballgame without a spot on their uniforms. By the third inning, dirt covered the T-shirts and pants of adrenaline athletes.

With one play, Jeff Wheeler, Kansas University's third-year sophomore defensive end out of Houston, defined himself as an adrenaline athlete.

Late in the first quarter against Baylor, a game Kansas would blow at the end and lose 36-35, Wheeler received a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Hellbent on making amends immediately, Wheeler sacked the quarterback for a 16-yard loss. Encouraging sign.

"I don't know why that was a penalty," Wheeler said, still steamed after all this time. "The guy was scrambling forward when I hit him."

Everybody wants to get even after a perceived injustice. Not everybody pulls it off.

"I felt like I needed a little payback the next play," Wheeler said. "I was really pumped for that one. I definitely play better when my adrenaline is going."

Adrenaline athlete all the way.

Kansas needs a defensive end who consistently can dart off the edge and get in the face of the quarterback. The way Wheeler performed during his redshirt season, when he was co-player of the year on the defensive scout team, led some to believe Wheeler could play a big role in 2006. He didn't. To some, his feet didn't look as quick as during the previous season. At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds and with long arms, he looks the part of a pass rusher. He didn't always produce like one in a reserve role. He finished the season with seven tackles and two sacks.

"I'm trying real hard to be that guy," Wheeler said. "I'm getting better every day. I'm more healthy now than I have been the last couple of years."

Wheeler developing into a productive specialist coming off the edge on passing downs could set off a chain reaction that would help the entire defense.

Even though Kansas finished fifth in the Big 12 in sacks with 31 last season, that statistic can be misleading. It doesn't indicate how often defensive backs were left on an island because the normal support was sent after the quarterback.

Rare is the defense that can line up four down linemen and send them after the QB. Those defenses end up with nicknames such as "Purple People Eaters" and "The Steel Curtain."

The only KU defensive lineman proven at harassing the quarterback is tackle James McClinton. If two others, say ends Wheeler and Maxwell Onyegbule, can establish themselves, and a linebacker (James Holt?) can come close to doing the job Brandon Perkins did two years ago, striking deep against KU won't be the breeze it was in 2006, when KU ranked last in the nation in pass defense.


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