ATHENS, Ga. - Just about everything Danny Verdun Wheeler has done for the last four years was leading up to what he hopes to do in the next three months.
A 2003 graduate of Thomson High School, Verdun Wheeler has become a mainstay of the Georgia Bulldogs' linebacking corps during the last three seasons, playing in 35 games and recording 127 total tackles on a defense that has often been regarded as one of the best in the country.
Last season, Verdun Wheeler played in all 13 of Georgia's games (starting nine times) and was the team's fourth leading tackler. He also enjoyed his career-high day in 2005, recording 13 tackles in the Bulldogs' 23-20 win over Arkansas on Oct. 22.
The 6-foot-2, 244-lb. senior is a bit of a college-football anomaly in that he saw action as a true freshman. And as a serious student of the game, Verdun Wheeler has learned his lessons well and can be called upon to play any of the three linebacker spots - Sam (strong side), Will (weak side) and Mike (middle) - in Georgia's scheme.
Verdun Wheeler will probably start at Sam linebacker, but he also expects to see plenty of time at Will. Several of Georgia's linebackers were slowed with nagging injuries last season, but the position appears very solid this fall with Verdun Wheeler, senior Tony Taylor (6-1, 237), junior Brandon Miller (6-4, 248) and senior Jarvis Jackson (6-2, 218) in the mix.
"I feel like I've learned and matured so much," said Verdun Wheeler, who missed spring practice due to a wrist injury, but will be fit for duty when the No. 15 Bulldogs open the 2006 season hosting Western Kentucky at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday. "I think I could pretty much line up at any position and tell you what you need to do. ...Every day is something new, and every game is something big. Win or lose, there's so much out here that you can learn. Everything I've done to this point has been so positive that it can only get better as the days and years go on."
Georgia's linebackers coach John Jancek, who was able to start the same lineup at linebacker only three times last season due to injuries, said Verdun Wheeler's versatility is a big bonus.
"Any player that has that type of knowledge and is that versatile adds great value to your team," he said. "Danny can play all three linebacker positions and play them all very well, and that's a good thing."
Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said Verdun Wheeler has stepped up as a leader.
"In the off-season, Danny was one of the players the strength staff was really praising for his leadership," he said. "Anytime you have a kid who played as a freshman and is now playing his last year here, it's a major positive. He's been a smart, productive player for us. ...We're looking for even bigger and better things."
Described by coaches as a leader by example, Verdun Wheeler has also earned the respect of his teammates.
"Danny has been a great teammate," said Taylor, who missed all of 2004 and four games last season due to knee problems. "He always keeps everything positive. He's not a guy to complain, he keeps everybody motivated, and he's great to be around."
A classic-car enthusiast who tools around the Georgia campus in an "old-school" 1970 Pontiac Catalina, Verdun Wheeler had several college options when his days at Thomson High ended, but Georgia was never far from his mind.
"I was leaning toward Georgia all the time, but Florida and Auburn were pounding on my door," said Verdun Wheeler who played on Thomson's 2002 Class AAAA state championship team. "I decided to stay close to home, and I'm thankful I did.
"I think it was a blessing for me to come to Georgia and play this close to home. My parents come up all the time - as a matter of fact, we had a big cookout at my house on Saturday after Picture Day and it went lovely. All my friends and family came up. It's a blessing that I can see my family any time."
With his final college football season on the horizon, Verdun Wheeler is focused on his immediate future, but he's also got an eye on the possibilities that await the end of his college career.
"We both want to go out and provide whatever we can so our team can come out with a win," said Taylor. "Everybody's trying to work hard and get better so they can compete on the next level. But everybody wants to finish on top with this team first before we even think about anything in the future."
And Verdun Wheeler may be looking at a pigskin career.
"I really understand football now, and I feel I can take my game to the next level," said Verdun Wheeler. "I've learned the entire style of defense you might need for the NFL. I've just matured so much in a football aspect."
LOCAL PLAYERS ON THE COLLEGE GRIDIRON
Matt Smith - Shorter College
Jasper Brinkley - University of South CarolinaCasper Brinkley - University of South CarolinaDeon Palmer - University of LouisvilleWillie Williams - University of LouisvilleDemarco McNair - Middle Tennessee StateJustin Callaway - Georgia Southern University
Tim McCord - CumberlandJustin Martin - AlabamaAndre Culpepper - West GeorgiaTyler Wester - LaGrange College
Jeffrey Kent - LaGrange College
Michael Paul - Charleston Southern
Greg Minor - Charleston Southern
Montrel Neal - Southeastern Louisiana
Antwone Johnson - Georgia Military
Arcephus Jones - Fort Valley State
Know a player that's missing from our list? Send their name and school to email@example.com. Through the season, The McDuffie Mirror will be profiling various college players, and offering regular updates on their efforts.