TSLX Spotlight: A Game of Inches
by Will Stewart, TSL Extra #11, September 19, 2001
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A Game of Inches
As you know by now, one of the key focuses of the TSL Extra is profiles of Virginia Tech football recruits. Usually, the profiles are of players who have committed to Tech or signed with Tech. But there are another class of recruits who are just as interesting: the kids who want to go to Tech but probably won't get a scholarship offer from the Hokies. This article is about one such player, Alan Wheeling of Pulaski County.
On the very last day of the year 2000, the following email hit my Inbox:
That was the first I had ever heard of Alan Wheeling. Over the next nine months, up until right before this issue of the TSL Extra went to press, we would exchange roughly thirty emails and would talk on the phone a couple of times, and I discovered that the stats he gave me were not inflated.
As a junior at cornerback last year, Wheeling had 84 tackles and 8 interceptions, impressive statistics in a ten-game high school season. He bench presses 300 pounds and squats 370, very good numbers for a high school defensive back.
But amongst all the great stats, there is one statistic that will likely determine Alan Wheeling's future more than any else: five-nine-and-a-half.
That's how tall Alan Wheeling is. Or, depending upon your perspective, how short he is.
As I read Alan's original email to me, I mentally scratched my chin and very carefully composed a reply. I don't consider myself to be any sort of recruiting guru at all, and the last thing I wanted to do was offer bad advice to a kid who was at a crossroads.
But at the same time, I did want to say something to him. I figured he had about eight months to start getting the attention of college programs, and for Alan, time was of the essence.
Fortunately, I know a little bit about the Pulaski County High School program. Actually, without knowing a whole lot, I know everything you need to know: the name Joel Hicks.
Hicks is the head coach at Pulaski County and has been for years, ever since he left his position as an assistant coach at West Virginia University in the late 70's and decided that high school coaching was his true calling. He settled into Southwest Virginia and has built a powerhouse program, one that has won numerous district titles and even a state championship in 1992, Shayne Graham's freshman year (the Cougars should have won it in 1993 too, but Pulaski supporters will tell you that the Cougars got complacent and suffered a playoff loss they shouldn't have).
Point being, Hicks knows what he's doing. So I gave Alan Wheeling a lot of advice in my reply, but the theme running through my advice was this: let the coach be your guide. I advised him to get Hicks' help with making and distributing a video, and to follow the coach's guidance on what schools to send the tape to. If there were any schools outside of the group suggested by Hicks that Wheeling wanted to send his tape to, then I told him that he might want to take it upon himself to send the tape to those schools.
He thanked me for the advice, and I didn't hear from him again for a while.
Dreams of Tech
If Wheeling had his way, the choice would be clear: he would be a Hokie. If Virginia Tech offered him a scholarship, he would immediately accept it. His father is a Tech grad, and Wheeling has always loved the Hokies.
If you threw a rock into one of the typically large crowds at Pulaski County's Kenneth Dobson Stadium on a Friday night, you would, of course, hit a Cougar fan, but there's also a very high percentage chance that that Cougar fan would also be a Hokie fan. The love of maroon and orange runs deep among the Cougar faithful, and in Alan Wheeling's family, it is no different.
"I'm so familiar with Tech," he said recently in an interview with the TSL Extra, "and I'm so close to it, that I compare every school to Tech. Even on the D-1 level, they have so strong of a foundation. Every little detail they do, it's so amazing. Seeing Tech how they used to be, and how they are now I would give anything to play for them."
So he went to work with Coach Hicks, and they put together a highlight film.
"He (Coach Hicks) left it up to me what I thought was good and what I wanted to put on the tape. He was aiming towards some 1-AA schools like William and Mary, Richmond, James Madison. He was recruiting me on the 1-AA level, and sending tapes on to them, and everything else, like all the Division 1 schools, was left up to me.
"We decided to start small and work our way up. He said he would have Tech come down and look at me, and a couple of other schools. Once we started sending the film out, and we started getting some phone calls from different coaches, then he started sending my tape out to a few 1-A schools. He sent it to Virginia, Virginia Tech, NC State, Marshall, and Michigan."
Things started to pick up, and in March, Alan sent me another email:
Before school ended, Tech assistant coach Billy Hite stopped by Pulaski County to see Alan, and the two of them talked for a few minutes.
"He told me things looked good. He thought my grades were outstanding. He asked me about my SAT scores. It was a 970 at the time. He told me they'd be in touch with me, and asked if I was planning on attending their camp this summer. We talked about life and stuff. We didn't talk that much about football."
Apparently, Tech's Spring Game, which was held on April 21st, was a little bit too much for Wheeling to take. He sent me the following email a few days afterward, and although the recruiting process was going well, his desire to attend Tech, and how much it hurt him to sit in the stands at the Spring Game while other recruits roamed the sidelines, was clear.
As Wheeling's junior year came to a close, he faced a critical summer of football camps. Highlight film aside, nothing gets the attention of a college coach like a kid who shines at his summer camp.
Wheeling made preparations to attend three camps in the summer of 2001: N.C. State, William and Mary, and Virginia Tech.
First came the Wolfpack's camp, in mid June.
"I had a great camp. I worked at defensive back the whole camp. I ran a 4.5 flat down there. We got to run on the track with our spikes.
"In the defensive backs, there was a group of about 15 to 20 of us at the high school level. You start doing a couple of drills, footwork, speed, and you can tell who you've got athletically after that. If they want to take a close look at you, the assistant coach will pull the head coach over. At NC State, I had (defensive backs) Coach Demarest get the head coach (Chuck Amato) to come over and watch me go through a couple of drills.
"In my personal opinion, there were only one or two guys (DB's) who were my level, maybe a little higher. I really don't think they were that much better than me. They just had a few inches and a few pounds. They think I had a really good camp, but they can't decide yet if I'm 1-A material, mostly because of the size thing. They said they'll scout me during my senior year and kind of take it from there."
Next came William and Mary's camp, and the experience there was vastly different.
"I was only down there one day, but they treated me like a king," Wheeling said, his smile coming through the phone line. "You know, showing me around the whole campus, eating dinner with me, just treating me real nice. I haven't been offered yet, but I hear I'm going to get one.
"I think it's a great school. It's prestigious. If you get a degree from there, you're going to have a great job getting out. Campus is nice, I love the town, the coaching staff is awesome. The level of football that's a tough conference. I wouldn't mind playing in that one." (Note: W&M plays in the 11-team Atlantic 10, and in the latest 1-AA top 25 poll, 6 Atlantic-10 teams were in the top 25, with 3 others receiving votes.)
And in mid-July came the big one: Virginia Tech's camp.
A Sea of Football Players
N.C. State's camp had about 400 players, and William and Mary's had about a hundred, Wheeling said.
Virginia Tech's 2001 football camp, which spanned several days, had over eight hundred kids.
For Wheeling, a first-time attendee, it was a critical time. He knew that if a treasured scholarship offer from Virginia Tech was going to come, it would be because of a strong effort at camp.
"I didn't really know what to expect there, but immediately, before we even started doing anything, I got approached by coaches saying they knew who I was, because I told them I was coming."
After the players broke up into groups by position and started going through drills, Wheeling went all out. "Doing ball drills, the coaches were thrilled with me. We have a pretty good defensive backs coach at Pulaski, and I'm kind of always a step ahead in fundamentals. I got compliments from (VT defensive backs) Coach (Lorenzo) Ward. He complimented me, saying, 'Wheeling's trying to earn a scholarship!'
"I was hoping for an offer from Tech. And especially when Coach Ward made that statement about me working hard to get a scholarship. That really got me pumped, and I was working real hard."
On the next to last day of camp, the last day of drills, Wheeling knew something was up when Billy Hite pulled him aside and introduced him to Frank Beamer. "We just talked about how things were going at Pulaski, with Coach Hicks and everything," Wheeling remembers, "but I could see Beamer sizing me up."
And Wheeling wasn't the only one they were "sizing up."
"There was another defensive back there named Cary Wade. He's a senior at Robinson High School (Fairfax) this year. He was decent. He has pretty decent footwork. He wasn't as quick as me, and he's about the same size as me (editor's note: Wade was listed in an 8/30/01 SuperPrep update as 5-11, 180 pounds, with a 4.5 forty).
"I mentioned that I was talking to Coach Beamer when Coach Hite pulled me over well, immediately after that, they called Cary Wade over to introduce him to Coach Beamer, and they were sizing him up, as well.
"The next morning, our practice was over, and we were done with camp. They were giving us final comments, and Coach Ward made an announcement. He said, 'For one special young man, this $300 investment in this camp was the best investment he's ever made in life, because this morning, Virginia Tech has decided to offer him a full scholarship.' And he was talking about Cary Wade.
"So I figured it was between me and him, considering that Beamer looked at both of us."
As an aside, Wheeling notes that there was one defensive back at the camp who stood out above the others: Brian McPherson from Amherst, who received an offer at Tech's camp and committed to the Hokies.
"That Amherst DB that got offered, McPherson," Wheeling says, "I don't blame them at all for offering him. He's a stud. He was only there for a day. He's got real good feet, his transition is unreal, he's got real quick hips, and he's got the size and strength. I don't blame them for offering him."
With the Virginia Tech camp over, and his best shot to secure a scholarship offer passed, Wheeling must now concentrate on his senior season and on his other prospects. He has come to the realization that an offer from Tech is probably not in the cards, but the camp wasn't a total bust. Torrian Gray, who is the secondary coach at the University of Maine, was at Tech's camp and was impressed enough with Wheeling that Maine has offered. So has Western Carolina, who saw him at VT's camp, and Wofford.
And you never know what's going to happen. Just the other night, UVa called for the first time. Wheeling was out, and they only spoke to his parents, and under NCAA rules, they can't call again for another week. So he'll have to wait to see what they wanted to say.
And just last week, Doug Doughty named him to his preseason top 40 players in the state of Virginia, at the number 40 slot. "I was pretty excited," Wheeling beams. "I got a lot of people around here congratulating me and wishing me luck."
It now appears that his best shot with the Hokies might be as a recruited walk-on, although he hasn't discussed it with the Hokie coaches. If that opportunity does come, Wheeling will have to balance his heart, which leans toward Virginia Tech, and his head.
"I dont know," he answers, when asked whether he would attend Tech as a walk-on or accept a scholarship offer from a Division 1-AA school. "I'm trying to face reality here. I've had friends that have walked on to Tech, and have made it, and have eventually earned a scholarship, so I know it's possible, and I know it can happen. I love Tech so much. I grew up around it, and I'm a big Hokie fan. That would be such a dream come true.
"But realistically, helping my parents out financially, I think I might go with the scholarship."
Pulaski County Coach Joel Hicks answers that question bluntly and directly.
"I'll give him advice to go to William and Mary," Hicks says when discussing the hypothetical situation of Wheeling having a scholarship offer from W&M but not one from Tech. "I think William and Mary is a wonderful school. I think in recruiting, part of the deal is a school wanting you. I mean wanting you bad, enough to offer you a scholarship.
"I think when you walk on it's a hard road. It's a hard road. They would have offered you at the beginning if they thought you could play. So you have to prove yourself two or three times over. You don't get to come in in the fall in your first year, you walk on in the spring I think if you go to a William and Mary, or a Richmond, or a JMU, that wants you from day one, they've got a plan for you.
"Alan Wheeling will not be happy sitting on the bench. He thinks he might, and maybe he'll dream about it. But an athlete needs to go where he's going to be happy. He's got to be playing. I told him that, I told his mom that, and I told his dad that, and I think they agree."
Wherever Wheeling decides to go, Hicks thinks they'll be getting a heck of a player and person. He thinks so much of Wheeling that in addition to starting him in the defensive backfield, Hicks starts him at quarterback and even has him return punts. Wheeling rarely leaves the field, and that's saying something at a school like Pulaski County, where plenty of kids turn out for the team.
"I think he's just a wonderful kid," Hicks says of Wheeling, the affection apparent in his voice. "I'd take him home with me. He's polite, he's a gentleman, a leader. He's a fine player."
But football is a game of inches, and in Wheeling's case, a mere two and a half inches or so is all that separates him from a football scholarship to Virginia Tech. If he were 6-0 instead of five-nine-and-a-half, this story would probably be different.
Hicks believes that ten years ago, the Hokies would have offered Alan Wheeling a scholarship in a heartbeat. All five-foot-nine-and-a-half of him. "Yes, without a doubt, maybe even just 6 or 7 years ago," he says.
"I try not to think about that," Wheeling says when informed of his coach's comment. You can still hear the smile in his voice, but it's a bit more wistful this time. "I try not to think about that."
(Editor's Note: Wheeling, who will play in the VHSL All-Star game this July, eventually signed with William and Mary and will join the Tribe starting this fall.)