Sammy Wheeler’s expectations were low, and because he had been so wide open on the same play so many times before, he didn’t think the ball would come his way this time. He was bound to be covered, and if backup quarterback Ryan Henington was pressured again, well, forget about it.
Wheeler, Kansas State’s newest tight end broke out of his stance, though, and sprinted to the left sideline, curling back toward the end zone. Henington lofted it up.
Wheeler caught it — one-handed. His left hand. His off hand.
He pinned it to his side, came down a hair inside the boundary and tumbled out of bounds. The official calling the scrimmage portion of Saturday’s K-State Spring Showcase called it incomplete, but his teammates paid no mind. Dozens of Wildcats rushed to Wheeler, high-fived him and jumped into him.
“That was a good time,” Wheeler said. “They called it out, but thankfully there’s replay in the real games.”
For Wheeler, the catch was more than just a fun highlight in the middle of April. The redshirt freshman came to K-State as a quarterback, but for several reasons, he’s since moved to the tight end position. The transition hasn’t been seamless, Wheeler said, and it’ll likely be quarterback Skylar Thompson throwing that pass in the fall, but coming down with a slick catch like Saturday’s represented Wheeler taking a step toward meshing with his new identity on offense.
“Ever since he switched over, he has embraced every opportunity,” Thompson said. “He makes plays, he works, and he has a great attitude. Sammy’s going to be successful. I’m so excited to get a guy like that.”
Wheeler, whom some teammates call “Wheels,” is only a couple weeks into his position change. It was a few weeks ago when K-State quarterbacks coach Collin Klein called Wheeler and arranged a meeting to discuss the topic, and to gauge Wheeler’s interest.
Fortunately for Wheeler, it came as no surprise.
“It was lingering in the back of my mind,” he said. “I felt like it was coming.”
Wheeler accepted right away. Thompson, the team’s starting quarterback, was well ahead of him on the depth chart — “I had no shot,” Wheeler said with a laugh — and Wheeler figured his quickest path toward playing time came at tight end, not quarterback.
Even Thompson liked the idea. He found out from another of the team’s quarterbacks, he said, and when the teammate asked Thompson if he had heard “the news” about Wheeler, Thompson’s heart sank.
“I was like, ‘Oh no,’” Thompson said. “I thought he left the team, or something happened.”
As it turned out, Wheeler merely was changing positions.
“I got to thinking about it,” Thompson said, “and I was like, ‘Shoot. He’s a big kid. He has a good frame, he can put on some weight. He’s really athletic.’”
Thompson had a point. Wheeler stands 6-foot-4, and at 221 pounds, he has a slew of physical gifts. The Lenexa native has worked on adjusting both physically and mentally, and there’s work to be done in the film room, but there’s good news for Wheeler.
His coaches see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re putting him in some positions to continue to push him in the run game,” K-State head coach Chris Klieman said, “but he’s a big weapon in the pass game if he continues to progress, because he can run and he’s got really good hands. Now, just like everybody else, he just has to understand the system.”
That’s where Wheeler’s experience at quarterback comes in. He didn’t play last year, instead redshirting, but he spent the entire time thinking like a quarterback, seeing plays develop through the eyes of a signal-caller.
He still can do that. Now, he’ll do it as he runs routes, blocks and reads defenses.
“Knowing the defensive schemes, from (being a) quarterback, it helps a lot,” Wheeler said. “I know what they’re trying to do, so I can scheme against it.”
By the same token, though, it also helps that Wheeler didn’t get on the field last year.
“He has no habits to break, because he’s brand new at the position,” Klieman said. “So it’s fun for ‘Coach Mess’ (offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham), because he gets to teach him from Square 1 and scratch.”
If he wins the position battle, Wheeler will be thrown into action. Klieman likes to utilize the tight end — “a tight end is a position that is of need for us,” he said — so Wheeler would be involved, whether as a receiver or blocker.
That’s where Wheeler’s physical gifts and mental inexperience split. He has the size for the position, but learning to really play it is another challenge.
His teammates see the potential within him.
“Just seeing him (make that one-handed catch), it’s something I knew he could do,” quarterback John Holcombe II said. “Of course y’all weren’t out here during the practices and stuff like that, (but when we’re) throwing the ball to Sammy, he’s making all types of catches. To see him showcase it out here in front of all the fans and give y’all a peek of what he’s got, it was pretty nice. I was real impressed by the catch. I can’t wait to see what he does for us this season.”
It’s still April, so Wheeler has time — to learn, to lift, to study the playbook well enough to make his case for the starting tight end position when August rolls around and the season kicks off.
For now, though, the process continues.
“It’s been a lot different,” Wheeler said. “Coming from quarterback, you don’t really get down in the dirt of football. So my body gets a little more sore, and you’re hitting more, but it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”