Aug. 12, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Kenzel Doe has been a Big Brother to Robert Wheelwright. Not literally, of course. Doe is 5-foot-8. Wheelwright is 6-2. "We always say I'm a little Big Brother,'' Doe laughed. "Little Big Bro. I love it.''
Doe and Wheelwright have been an otherwise logical pairing in a Big Brother program that was implemented by Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen to match an upperclassman with a first-year player.
Doe, a junior from Reidsville, N.C., and Wheelwright, a freshman from Columbus, Ohio, are wide receivers. In 2011, Doe was one of just three true UW freshmen to letter, so he knows the challenges.
So does Wheelwright's real Big Brother -- Ernie Wheelwright, the fourth leading receiver in University of Minnesota history with 159 catches for 2,434 yards (15.3 average) and 26 touchdowns.
In 2004, the 6-5, 217-pound Wheelwright set Gophers freshmen records for receiving yards (654) and TDs (7). Only Eric Decker, Ron Johnson and Tutu Atwell have finished with more career receptions.
Robert Wheelwright, thus, has a couple of good sounding boards in his Big Brothers.
"He (Doe) has helped me a lot with plays, schemes, different concepts and route-running,'' said Wheelwright. "We're always out here getting extra work. He's another role model, he's my mentor.''
Doe has enjoyed serving Wheelwright in that capacity. "I've been trying to help him any time I can,'' he said. "If he calls me and he needs me for something, I'll be there for him.''
Wheelwright was one of five newcomers to earn Motion Ws for the side of their helmet. The others were tailback Corey Clement, center Chris Gill and linebackers Leon Jacobs and Alec James.
The Big Brothers are part of the process by which achievement is rewarded.
"A coach came up to me and asked, `Do you think he (Wheelwright) should get his stripe off (the helmet)?''' Doe recounted. "I said, `Yeah, he has been working hard and I felt like he deserved it.'''
When the first-year players reported to training camp, they were given white helmets, sans Ws. The helmet's only distinguishing characteristic was a black stripe that definitely set them apart.
"He has a good work ethic and you can't ask for more than that,'' Doe said of Wheelwright. "He has been getting a lot of reps and I feel like the coaches want to give him a chance to play this year.''
As a true freshman, Doe caught only two passes. What's the best advice that he can give Wheelwright? "Everything isn't going to be perfect,'' he said, "and you have to keep positive.''
Doe had the equivalent of his own Big Brother in wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. "Abby was always telling me you're not going to have a good practice every day,'' he said. "Just get through it.''
Wheelwright has been coming to grips with the physical demands of college football.
"Just getting adjusted was a little hard,'' conceded Wheelwright, who caught 48 passes for 903 yards and 12 touchdowns during his senior year at Walnut Ridge High School.
"It's way different from high school. But after awhile your body gets used to the routine and the conditioning part. The strength coaches have been great and have gotten me ready for this.''
So, how ready is Wheelwright?
"My mindset was to just come in and learn the plays and let my talent show,'' he said. "If it does happen (playing time) then it happens. But my goal was to come in and contribute to this team.''
How far away is Wheelwright from contributing? "A long way,'' said UW receivers coach Chris Beatty. "But he's getting better every day and he wants to get better. That's a big part of it.''
The Badgers have an obvious need at wide-out. "And I just use it as motivation that I can be that guy,'' Wheelwright said. "I'm learning from my older teammates and we're all helping each other.''
There's an urgency that goes along with that need. "We're not slow-playing him at all,'' said Beatty, noting that Wheelwright has been taking reps with the 2's and 3's during the first week of camp.
"We don't want to slow down the 1's but he will be with them some so we can see what he can do against the best competition that we've got.
"He has good suddenness,'' Beatty went on. "He's got some quickness at the line of scrimmage that some of our guys are lacking. He's got decent ball skills, so we have to improve those.
"But he has a good rangy body so he has some things to work with. He's quick, he's sudden and he has got to translate that to game action. If he does, he'll have a chance.
"He's going to be a good player,'' said Beatty adding the caveat, "Going to be.''
Consistency and patience are the keys to his growth. His Big Brother could have told him the same things, and likely has. Ernie Wheelwright and Robert Wheelwright communicate almost daily.
"We just talk about football, he has been a big influence,'' Robert said. "He was always the one who motivated me. I looked up to him and saw him as a role model. Still to this day I do.''
Has there been pressure in living up to his example? "There was a little; I've always had big shoes to fill,'' he said. "But after awhile I started to make a name for myself and it kind of faded away.''
Little Brother has gone to school on the lessons that Big Brother has taught him.
"You have to be consistent in everything you do,'' Robert said. "You can't take plays off, and to be a big-time player you have to make big-time plays when big-time plays are needed.
"I still have his film (when he played for the Gophers) and I watch it all the time. As big as he was, he was elusive; he could make people miss. And he was a go-getter, he'd go get it (the ball).''
Wheelwright has not seen much old film of his grandfather, the late Ernie Wheelwright, a running back for the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in the '60s.
"I did see him in `The Longest Yard,''' he said of the 1974 movie starring Burt Reynolds as Paul Crewe. His granddad was Spooner. He also appeared in such TV shows as Quincy and The Jeffersons.
Robert Wheelwright, like his Big Brother, had no problem leaving Columbus and playing at a Big Ten school other than Ohio State. "Not at all, I felt at home here (at Wisconsin),'' he said.
During the head coaching transition from Bret Bielema to Andersen, he said, "I sat back to look at the big picture, but at the end of the day I always knew that I'd be a Badger.''
Another aspiring UW wide receiver, Alex Erickson, can relate to what Wheelwright was saying.
"This is where I wanted to be,'' said Erickson, a redshirt freshman from Argyle, Wis. "Growing up in Wisconsin, it's every kid's dream to come here; especially with the walk-on tradition.''
Wisconsin graduate assistant coach Luke Swan, a former UW receiver, wrote one of those walk-on success stories in making the jump from Fennimore to the Big Ten. He was a team captain as a senior.
"If I ever need advice, he (Swan) is always there for me,'' said Erickson, an all-state quarterback and defensive back at Darlington High School. He was also all-state in basketball.
"As a freshman, you really didn't know anything about him,'' Doe said of 6-foot, 198-pound Erickson. "But he has come a long ways. You can tell that he's been in the playbook.''
Erickson has attacked training camp with a game plan. "Do what the coaches tell you,'' he said, "learn from your teammates and learn from the film -- that's a big thing.
"When the ball comes your way, you've got to go up and attack it. I just can't get complacent now. I've got to keep going, I've got to keep making plays. No excuses, I have to keep grinding.''
Beatty used the word "crafty'' to describe Erickson.
"He's not really great at anything, but he gets open and he catches the ball,'' Beatty said. "Sometimes it's not the prettiest guys (making plays). It's being in the right place at the right time.
"Every day he has made plays and gotten better.''
Ditto for Doe. "He has had a good camp so far,'' Beatty said. "With the ball in his hands, he's got some wiggle that some of the rest of our guys are trying to get. He came in ready.''
Last season, Doe had 15 catches for 116 yards.
"I'm definitely way more confident now,'' Doe said. "Being one of the leaders for the receiving group, I feel like I can go out and perform way better than I have.''
This summer, Doe and tailback Melvin Gordon would show up at Camp Randall Stadium and work out together at 7 a.m. They were joined by some of their teammates, including Wheelwright.
"We worked on speed and quickness,'' Doe said.
What's the next step for a position group that has come under so much scrutiny?
"We wanted to get everybody on film and evaluated the first week,'' Beatty said. "Next week is when we'll start narrowing down the reps. Next week is make it, or cut bait.''
It all starts with Monday's scrimmage, the first of the fall. "It's a big deal for our guys, no doubt,'' Beatty said. "We have to show that we're improving.''