Rob Wheelwright laughed knowingly, as if he knew he’d be forgiven for the first sin and never live down the second.
A reporter had asked if the Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver and Columbus, Ohio, native had ever rooted for the hometown Ohio State Buckeyes — the same Buckeyes who’ll visit Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday night in the biggest Big Ten cage match of the weekend.
Basically? Yeah … what about it?
“A little bit,” Wheelwright replied. “When Troy Smith and Ted Ginn played (for the Buckeyes). And as I grew, my brother (Ernie IV) went to school, he went to Minnesota, so I was a Minnesota fan.”
Wheelwright paused, as if to consider the previous sentence. Then he quickly tossed out a caveat, just in case anyone thinks the senior has a Paul Bunyan’s Axe to grind:
“For a second.”
The Gophers thing? Just a phase.
The Buckeyes thing? A little murkier.
The 6-foot-3 Wheelwright was a senior taking names at Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus the last time the Scarlet and Gray set foot inside Camp Randall in the fall of 2012. In fact, the Badgers wideout had actually attended Ohio State’s junior day in February 2012 and met Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Wheelwright reportedly fielded offers from Wisconsin, Boston College, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pitt, Purdue, Syracuse and West Virginia — but not from the Buckeyes.
He wound up following his fellow Walnut Ridge alum, tight end Austin Traylor, to Madison. The 6-foot-4 Traylor appeared in 38 games for the Badgers from 2011-15.
“I used to like Wisconsin as a school as well,” Wheelwright explained. “Even as a kid, I used to like Wisconsin.”
So even if Buckeyes love doesn’t exactly flow through the Wheelwright bloodline, the family ties remain thick, fast and strong. Wheelwright’s grandfather, Ernie “The Wheel” Wheelwright, starred at Southern Illinois and with the New York Giants (1964-65), Atlanta Falcons (1966-67) and New Orleans Saints (1967-70) before turning to acting (“The Longest Yard,” “The Jeffersons”) and entertainment. Grandpa even cut a soul single, “Begging You Back,” for Atlanta-based Gaye Records in 1969:
Rob’s older brother, the aforementioned Ernie IV, played 49 games from 2004-2007 as a wideout with the Gophers, catching 26 touchdown passes. The younger Wheelwright, who’s notched five scoring grabs in 38 career games, said they still touch base almost every day.
“Just (about) upcoming games, practices and so forth,” Rob said. “He gave a lot of knowledge, information about types of defenses, coverages, players, teams. Especially because he’s been here before and he’s played against teams, he’s played in big games. He’s really been helpful throughout this process as well.”
Wheelwright tied for the team lead in touchdown catches last season (four), but has yet to score this fall. He told reporters in the spring that he wanted to break the Badgers’ single-season record for catches in a season, the 78 set by former teammate Jared Abbrederis in 2013.
That one? That one might be a bit of a climb.
With 18 grabs through five games, Wheelwright is on a pace to finish with 43 at the end of a 12-game slate — well below the target of 79, but still a new personal high, besting the 32 caught over eight games last fall.
“It’s (still) realistic and it’s my mentality,” Wheelwright said. “Of course it’s possible. Anything’s possible. Just having that mindset going into the season, and me wanting to see individual growth for myself (and) overall to help the team. And I feel like we have a long season. We have a lot of games left … so it’s very possible.
“I’m just being a team player, going out there and trying to do what I need to do, (whether it’s) catching the ball, blocking, just being able to be dependable. Coaches talk a lot about just being dependable, being consistent. My job, when the ball is thrown, is to make a play. Try to be a playmaker as well. Try to do as much as possible for my team to be successful.”
He’s building a rapport, snap by snap, with redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who was anointed the Badgers’ starter only three weeks ago. But he admits that the relationship is developing on the fly.
“With him being a quarterback, a young guy who’s new to the system, I feel like he’s doing a great job,” Wheelwright said. “He’s been out in some situations where the outcome wasn’t always the best, but he’s handled it well.
“Whether he’s young or not, we’ve held him accountable to make those plays and make those calls … and he’s done a good job with that. Of course, we’ve got some things to work on. And we’ll be better as (the) team progresses, and he just gets more comfortable with being the quarterback.”
After getting knocked around by the fourth-ranked Wolverines, this weekend is a big one for Hornibrook. It’s an even bigger one for Wheelwright, who has yet to log a catch against his hometown team.
“I’m pretty sure I have, like, 15 tickets,” Wheelwright said. He laughed again. “Don’t tell anyone that. I was able to rack up a few extra tickets. I have a few family and friends who are coming up to support me.”