Two years later, Wheeler completed the 2012 campaign with a 6-5 record and an appearance in the state playoffs for the first time since 2006. With six starters expected to return on offense and six expected back on defense at the conclusion of spring practices, Collins has enjoyed watching his team improve over the years.
“It’s been an enjoyable process watching this program take the necessary steps forward to get better,” he said. “The community has gotten really excited about Wheeler football and I hope we can continue to move the program forward.
“We lost a couple of good players, but we’re fortunate to return a great deal of skill guys. So, it will be exciting to see who steps up and to see the camaraderie build within this group.”
One of the Wildcats’ key losses was starting linebacker Dametrius Webb, whom Collins described as “the heart and soul of the team and a defensive catalyst.”
“We went into spring practices looking to see who can fill his shoes and we’ll continute to evaluate that during the summer practices too,” Collins said.
One name that has been mentioned is Quincye Price, who logged 11 starts last year at linebacker. Collins feels Price can step in and be the new heart and soul of the front seven moving forward and hopes to see that type of attitude over the next couple of months.
The offensive line was a source of strength for Wheeler a season ago, but the unit will have to replace three starters in K.C. Shaw, Andrew Enloe and Rashawn McMath heading into the 2013 season.
“We’ll be young up front,” Collins said. “We’ll have to focus on getting some maturity from the guys taking over those positions.”
Also gone is kicker and punter J.D. Barron, who helped the special teams units by hitting 95 to 98 percent of his kickoffs into the endzone. Barrone was also counted on for field position, and his field goals were key to the Wildcats playoff hunt.
A few of the skill position players returning on offense include quarterback Elijah Staley, wide receivers Harlan Howell, Billy Polakowski and Jacobi Green and running back Devontae Jackson.
“Elijah’s been responsible for a great deal of our success,” Collins said. “He’s a two-year starter at quarterback, so he has a lot of games under his belt already going his senior year.
“Our receiving corps is mostly back, which is another big help, and Devontae carried the load for us during the latter part of the season. We have high expectations for all of these guys and we’re going to lean on their experience.”
Defensively, outside linebackers Jevan Sampler and Maleek Cathchings return as well as defensive back Allen Artis. Teamed with Price, Collins said he will “rely on those guys to get the defense through.”
“They’ve had a good offseason and we’re excited to have them back,” he continued.
Linemen Lucas Mendonca and Darryl Price are also back for the Wildcats and could see time on both sides of the ball.
Besides the offensive line, Wheeler’s defensive backfield could also use some help. Collins expects the battle for those positions to continue throughout the offseason.
“We have some concerns in the backend,” he said. “We’re a little inexperienced there. The competition is wide open. Nobody has separated themselves at defensive back during the spring, so we’ll take it into summer practice and see where it goes.
“Overall, there was some high energy at spring practice. Guys seemed to have a fast learning curve and I hope that carries over into the season.”