Homer Smith used to call it “pushing the top,” and I like to refer to it as “blowing the lid off”. Both are suitable references to speedy receivers beating defenses vertically, which is something not all receivers can do. One thing we’ve learned about football is that you can coach technique and discipline, but you can’t coach speed. That’s the outstanding trait that Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton has.
Believed to be roughly 6’ and 180 or so pounds, the senior receiver is one of the fastest rising prospects for the upcoming 2013 draft. He is very explosive and possesses an impressive second gear that enables him to run by defensive backs. The second gear is something that Wheaton’s always had, going back to the age of 14 when he won back-to-back national titles on the track. Later, during his studies at Chandler High School, Wheaton set a “personal record 46.80 seconds in the 400 meters, a time that stood as the best in state for most of his senior year at Chandler.”
At Oregon State, he’s also set records, most notably total receptions, which shows that he means business. Handling business was the main reason he came to OSU, citing in an October interview that “he experienced more of a party atmosphere during recruiting visits to other schools. When he arrived in Corvallis, there was snow on the ground, school wasn’t in session and OSU was preparing for the Sun Bowl.”
Wheaton’s on-field business has seen him become one of the most dangerous receivers in all of college football and receive lofty comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. Like Wallace, Wheaton’s game is based off of winning vertically with sheer speed, which he did very well on numerous occasions, including a 43-yard touchdown versus UCLA.
Lined up just inside the numbers to the right side of the field, Wheaton was assigned to run a go-route against senior corner Sheldon Price. Price was playing off-man coverage, giving a cushion of nearly eight yards and respecting the vertical speed of the OSU receiver.
When Wheaton got off the line of scrimmage, he quickly ate up the cushion and gave a slight jab with his outside foot. Having to respect a potential outside breaking route ran by Wheaton, Price abruptly reacted by coming forward for a split-second and planting his inside foot into the ground. Once he did this, Wheaton squared his shoulders and accelerated vertically, closing the remaining gap between himself and the defender.
Nearly 18 yards down the field, Wheaton and Price were shoulder-to-shoulder. It appeared that Price recovered from the early move from Wheaton and was going to be able to hold up in man coverage. However, that thought quickly went south as Wheaton ran right north and right by Price, proceeding to haul in the pass for a deep touchdown.
This was the immense speed that Wheaton showed so often, posing a plethora of problems for defensive coordinators and leading to comparisons to Mike Wallace. Although he is viewed in the same light as Wallace, he possesses better hands than Wallace does. He’s a natural pass catcher, keeping the football away from his body by extending his arms, opposed to trapping the football with his upper body when it comes in. He also shows good concentration and extension when hauling in the football over his shoulder.
Despite having better hands than Wallace, I do have a concern about Wheaton that he shares with the Steelers receiver, which revolves around his agility or lack thereof.
When receivers are asked to run certain routes, such as a deep comeback or dig, they shouldn’t have to motor down when breaking off their pattern. In other words, a receiver shouldn’t have to take four or five steps to stop and turn to his quarterback. Instead, he should be taking two or three to break off his route and get open. This may seem like a minor issue, but it’s not because it limits the route tree for the receiver. A limited route tree can be a difficult issue to overcome for receivers because of the way defenses defend them. Opposed to facing isolated man coverage, the receiver will face more bracket (read: double) coverage, making it more difficult for him to win vertically, meaning he will have to run shorter and more precise routes to get open.
Generally speaking, speedsters tend to have this issue and if one recalls, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin famously called Wallace a “one-trick pony”. This is not to say that Wheaton is a one trick pony at the moment, as it would be unfair to call a collegiate player such, but he will have to expand his route tree when he’s drafted into the NFL in April, and I could foresee it being an issue for him.
Overall, every receiver has concerns and Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton is no exception. He may lack great agility but he has one great trait that will give him a good chance of succeeding in the NFL: speed. Speed can’t be taught and often can’t be matched, which is why Wheaton is a very appealing prospect.
He’s currently a draft riser that will likely fly up many more boards after February’s NFL Combine. There he’ll show off his physical traits and potential, which head coach Oregon State head coach Mike Riley thinks his star receiver has plenty of: "we're just looking at a glimpse of what he's capable of."