No one really knew what to expect from the Wildcats in their first year under Collins. Though they only won once that season, it was still an improvement over the last two campaigns.
However, the 2011 season was an even bigger surprise. After back-to-back losses to two playoff-bound teams — Pope and South Cobb — to begin the year, Wheeler won two straight to move to .500 and eventually posted a 4-6 record by season’s end.
The four wins were more than the three previous seasons combined, so when the Wildcats began spring practice May 7, the tone was upbeat in preparation for 2012.
“We have some young guys stepping up, particularly on defense,” Collins said. “I’m excited. The kids are excited. We have (offensive lineman) Kion Shaw showing some leadership, so I’m excited about his progress. We have five guys returning on offense and three on defense.
“The atmosphere is positive. The kids are optimistic about the future and looking forward to the season. We still have a long way to go, though. It’s a process of building on the work you’ve done the previous days. Each individual player is buying into the program and doing what it takes to succeed. If that continues, we’ll continue to move forward. It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there.”
The process may be slow, but the results are undeniable.
“When I took the job, I only expected to come in here and try to make sure that I had a better program the next day than I had the day before,” Collins said. “That is still the goal. I’m never one to look at numbers and wins and losses. They take care of themselves.”
Numbers have definitely been a positive for Wheeler as its program improves. Roughly 80 players were involved in spring practice, and Collins expects that number to increase by 20 when freshmen enroll in the fall.
The numbers on offense are pretty good, too, as the Wildcats return quarterback Elijah Staley, a rising junior who threw for 833 yards and four touchdowns last year, as well as three offensive linemen and a wide receiver.
“It’s always a positive to have your starting quarterback returning,” Collins said of the 6-foot-7 Staley, who also started as a forward for the Wheeler basketball team. “Elijah has a year of experience under his belt, his No. 1 option at receiver is also back, and he has a strong offensive line in front of him. I’m excited to see how all that develops this year.”
Shaw, one of the returning offensive linemen, is entering his third year as a starter.
“He’s been in the fire and in the trenches for a while,” Collins said. “He’s a leader by example — and the bell-cow of our offensive line so to speak.”
Defensively, rising junior outside linebacker Jevan Sampler is expected to be the steady leader on that side of the ball.
“He’s shown a lot of maturity on defense,” Collins said. “I’m looking to have a good season from him.”
Wheeler’s progress in spring practice was positive, according to Collins, who is eager to get his team ready for the fall.
“Coming out of the spring, for the most part, we are looking forward to summer practice and the chance to see our team compete each week,” he said.