Receiver Wheelwright just glad to be a part of the show

Ben Goessling

By now, you’ve probably seen it: Ernie Wheelwright pogo-sticking over a defender, tipping a pass to himself with his left hand and securing it with his right before landing with his second touchdown in Minnesota’s 63-21 trouncing of Toledo Saturday.

The catch topped SportsCenter’s list of the day’s best plays, and immediately changed conversations about the receiver from “who is that guy?” to “did you see that?”

But for the first-year player, the best consequence of the catch is teammates serenading him with cries of, “SC No. 1” on their way out the door from practice. He’s simply happy to be part of the show again.

The Columbus, Ohio, native was declared academically ineligible before the start of last season, separating him from football for the first time since grade school and starting one of the hardest years of his life.

“Being away from football was pretty tough,” he said. “The games are fun, but the biggest thing is going to the hotel (on Friday nights), seeing movies with the guys. There’s nothing better than having a bond with your teammates.”

The 6-foot-5-inch Wheelwright came to Minnesota last fall in the shadow of highly touted junior-college recruit Paris Hamilton, but neither had the chance to distinguish himself.

Hamilton missed the whole season with a knee injury, and Wheelwright found out in July 2003 he would be ineligible.

He was relegated to working alone with strength coaches – all the while wondering what life would be like if he wasn’t off on his own.

“It’s tough on those kids. For the first time in their lives they don’t feel part of a team,” coach Glen Mason said. “There’s a reason some guys gravitate toward team sports, the camaraderie and that kind of stuff. It’s not just about playing.”

But Wheelwright got his grade point average up after spring semester, and wasted no time making his mark this fall.

Within two weeks of the start of camp, the receiver had played his way past Hamilton and into the starting lineup.

“When you’re a guy as young as he is and you get into the lineup, sometimes guys take it the wrong way,” wide receivers coach Richard Wilson said. “When he doesn’t know something, he honestly doesn’t know it. He’s not faking his way through.”

In the first quarter of last weekend’s season-opener, Wheelwright broke off a short route and lost his defender just before quarterback Bryan Cupito hit him with a 42-yard touchdown strike.

“I was just waiting to throw it until he broke off his route,” Cupito said. “He’s picking things up real fast. There were a couple times on Saturday where I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he did that.’ “

Wheelwright’s second catch of the game drew that response from more than just Cupito.

“I saw it on film, but I’m told the angle we had didn’t do it justice,” Mason said.

And apparently, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Wilson said Wheelwright’s been known to “pull a rabbit out of his hat every now and then” in practice, and the 20-year-old says the catch is “probably in my top three.”

“In high school, I made a one-handed catch on the sidelines, and I had one where I caught it with one hand, but I was falling down in the back of the end zone,” he said, prizing the two receptions like the diamonds hanging from his ears.

Wheelwright said his cell phone was filled with messages from friends and family after the SportsCenter appearance, and the catch gave credence to Mason’s glowing impression of the receiver’s showing in camp.

With his size and strength, he seems a logical candidate to become Minnesota’s best crunch-time receiver since Ron Johnson.

And all of a sudden, Wheelwright, Hamilton, Jared Ellerson and Jakari Wallace – who combined for all of 47 catches last year – could become the most prolific core of pass catchers in Mason’s eight years at Minnesota.

“I’ve been most impressed with the way they’ve embraced Paris and Ernie,” Wilson said. “All four of them are overcomers, and they’ve each got a story.”

Wheelwright’s has finally begun.

“I’ve played football my whole life,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, the game was great. But the best part was getting butterflies in my stomach before the game and being around my teammates.”