Eight months after earning an open invitation to walk on for the Ducks, this unknown freshman was in line for a starting job on the field: The punter.
The player referred to is Ian Wheeler. He grew up in a land far, far away. Demorest, Georgia, to be exact. Wheeler’s punting career began in the backyard of his childhood home. At an age where video games and movies form the paramount joys of life, Wheeler had other interests. He taught himself to kick simply because it looked like fun.
As he grew older, Wheeler gained inspiration from the University of Georgia player Drew Butler (who played for the Steelers) and the UCLA player Jeff Locke (who punts for the Vikings). Once, Wheeler even traveled to a camp at University of Georgia to see Butler speak.
In high school Wheeler played varsity all four years. He avoided the kicker specialization stereotype by playing both the fullback and the linebacker postitions avidly. During his time with the Radiers, he made his personal best with a 60-yard punt. Other pre-Ducks achievements Wheeler held were the All-Region Second-Team Defense as punter (2010), the Preseason All-Region Team punter (2011) and Defensive First-Team Punter All-Region (2012). Wheeler’s accomplishments were both significant and varied, which helped add further luster to his overall strengths.
It wasn’t until attending the nationally renowned Chris Sailer Kicking Camp that Wheeler was “discovered.” While at the Duck summer football camp, he was invited to walk on, redshirting as a freshman. Wheeler was given the opportunity to be the backup’s backup, and help the scout team. He certainly wasn’t expected to beat out Dylan Ausherman — the punter on scholarship — to become starter Alejandro Maldonado’s backup.
With Wheeler’s actions during the fall, he garnered the support of positions coach Tom Osborne. In an interview with Andrew Greif from Oregon Live, Osborne said: “[Wheeler] had a great fall. During the whole month of December, gosh darn, he was crushing it.”
The secret to Wheeler’s rapid success, according to Osborne, was not a massively explosive leg, but his steady strength. Consistency is key. What Wheeler did very well last year was not out-kicking his coverage. Punting is the most technical of the kicking jobs, because you have to do it entirely by yourself, from catching the ball to dropping it and kicking it.
An explosive punt that goes 50 yards is exciting for the fans, but causes coaches anxiety if there is no hang time. The reach of the kick is impressive, but if your defenders can’t get there in time, that 50-yard punt can turn into a touchdown for the other guys. And you’ve ultimately failed your job. The Ducks prefer the 39.9-yard average Maldonado held last year. While his ranking among punters wasn’t high, U of O opponents averaged only 3.2 yards — making them the ninth lowest — on eight returns.
The punter is an unusual position because it’s the one job the coaches hope to keep off of the field at all cost. But, when they do hit the field, Wheeler told Greif from Oregon Live that the most important thing is to relax: “You can’t think about it while you’re doing it or you’ll mess up.”
The 6’1, 200 lb., Southern native had a little trouble taking his own advice when spring practices started up, as he brushed off the rust. The pressure to get the starting job and a scholarship would affect anyone, and he definitely felt the heat. But, as practices progressed, so did Wheeler. His reward for endless hours of hard work and growth? A scholarship and the starting position.
Already, Wheeler has gained a place out on the field. He hit the field against South Dakota, with a total of two appearances made by the redshirt freshman. The first punt revealed his nerves after an unusual play where Mariota failed to make any downs. His second appearances came once the Ducks’ second and third strings were in. This time he showed the crowd why he was the obvious choice for the starting position.
So far, Wheeler has continued this positive legacy. He achieved his personal longest punt, 53 yards, at the Michigan State game this September. Since then he’s maintained his position with appearances on the field at recent games, even up to four punts at the California game last month. And while his punting yards went down a little bit from his original average during games this October, Wheeler is back on the up-and-up at the Utah game with a 41-yard punting average.
I look forward to seeing Wheeler as little as possible. After all, it might be a token of some concern for how the Ducks are performing. But, when Wheeler appears he continues to show his strength … and the team is all the better for his talent.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove