Wheaton Looks To Energize Beavers
By Brian Price
Oregon State University's star wide receiver Markus Wheaton is very clear on one thing when it comes to the Beavers current 1-5 season: "This is not a rebuilding year. We still have a lot of football left to play."
At first glance the 2011 campaign has been disappointing: a season opening 29-28 overtime loss to Sacramento State followed by losses to No. 25 Arizona State and No. 8 Wisconsin.
However, Wheaton believes there's good reason for optimism and history is on his program's side. The Beavers are a combined 38-16 in October, November and December since 2004.
"We come to practice as if we're getting ready for a national championship," the 6-foot, 178-pound junior says.
Adapting to a new quarterback over the summer, from Ryan Katz to Sean Mannion, provided a challenge. Mannion is the only starting freshman QB of BCS conference teams.
That, coupled with numerous injuries on defense, could have spelled doom for the Beavers.
But competitors, regardless of circumstance, continue to fight and don't make excuses.
"We've lost two starting linebackers off the bat and we've adapted," said head coach Mike Riley during his weekly press conference.
This has compelled Riley to tap underclassmen and many have had to step up. To date, twenty first-time starters have taken the field this season, including ten true freshmen (an OSU record).
"Look, we've dealt with a lot of adversity. I mean every team does, but our record does not reflect who we are," Wheaton says.
He is currently averaging 7.7 receptions and 91.3 yards per game, which rank third and fourth, respectively, in the Pac-12.
A self-described family man, Wheaton has come a long way.
"My older brother goes to Southern Mississippi now and we're a year apart. We did everything together growing up," he says. "Our favorite thing to do was get our cousins and neighborhood friends together on a Saturday morning and play football in the street until it was dark out."
In his hometown of Chandler, Ariz., he developed a love of the game and a hunger for competition.
However, from the asphalt to the FieldTurf of Reser Stadium, Wheaton knew he had a lot to learn.
"Coming into [Oregon State University] I was raw, I lacked fundamentals, patience, and I used to just get on the field and run around," he says.
Wheaton followed the example of fellow receiver James Rodgers as how to run crisp routes, study film, and listen to everything the coaching staff had to say.
"James really helped show me the way," admits Wheaton.
It was on October 9 of last season when the apprentice stepped into his mentor's shoes. Wheaton truly became a pillar of the Beavers' offense against No. 9 Arizona.
"That's when James went down and I [stepped up] to help us get the win," says Wheaton about Rodgers' season-ending knee injury.
OSU went on to defeat Arizona 29-27 and Wheaton caught seven passes for 113 yards, which included a 48-yard touchdown pass from a scrambling Ryan Katz.
Now, Wheaton is considered the centerpiece of the Beavers offense. He is currently on pace - with 46 receptions for 548 yards so far - to break Rodgers' record of 91 total receptions in 2009.
Riley, during his weekly press conference agreed that Wheaton is "having a fabulous year thus far."
Wheaton, together with Rodgers and Jordan Bishop, both of whom struggled with injuries this season, now constitute one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
"Getting them healthy has been key," says Wheaton.
This season the Beavers are averaging 29 completions a game, on pace to set the school record for total completions in a season (the current record is 319). This year's team is on pace to rack up 340.
From the beginning of the season until now, nothing for Wheaton nor his fellow Beavers has changed.
"We're looking for wins. It's not over," he says. "We don't come to practice thinking about our record."
Tune in when OSU, seeking their second win in the past three weeks, takes on Washington State in a northern division showdown and the 95th game between the two programs.
Photo courtesy: Dennis Wolverton