It looked promising following back-to-back victories to begin the season, but the midseason dismissal of quarterback Elijah Staley derailed the Wildcats’ hopes.
However, the new quarterback, Ryles Kirkland, got the opportunity to prove himself and help Wheeler get back on track.
After a few tough losses, he and the rest of the Wildcats showed they could be competitive in the back half of the season, losing four of their final five games by a touchdown or less.
The enthusiasm from last year’s finish spilled over into spring practice, giving coach Mike Collins a good feeling about his team entering the summer.
“I came out of our spring practices excited about our progress,” he said. “The offseason workouts helped and they’ll continue to be a benefit for us moving forward.
“Our offensive line definitely got better, so we’re pleased with that, and the wide receiver corps showed what it could do, so I’m happy. I came out of there very optimistic, although knowing that there’s always more things to improve upon.”
The Wheeler offensive line will be anchored by rising juniors Chris Hall, Saage Lee, Felipe Silva and Val Martin, all of whom played significant minutes last season.
“Offensive line is definitely one of the areas we’re happy about,” Collins said. “These guys were in the trenches a lot last year, so they’re comfortable with doing things, and they should only get better with the extra work.”
Gabe Magerkurth will join Kirkland on the quarterback depth chart.
Harland Howell, a third-year varsity starter, will anchor the receiving unit, while Jacobi Green, a fourth-year starter, is expected to flourish at running back and wide receiver.
“We’re going to lean on Harland and Jacobi for leadership, and their experience over the past couple of years will be a great asset to the younger guys,” Collins said.
While there’s plenty of optimism on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is still a work in progress.
“We knew we wouldn’t have that big-name talent on defense, like we’ve had in the past, but these guys are coachable, and they’re willing to learn,” Collins said. “They want to get to the football, and they’re excited to play defense. We need to get better at tackling, though, which is something we’re going to teach all summer long and have them ready for the season.”
The defensive line concerns Collins because the unit is “undersized a little,” he said, but the linebacking unit is strong with returning starter David Brashear.
Defensive back Elijah Brown should pace the secondary with Daz Brewer.
“We have five guys returning on offense and three on defense,” Collins said, “so we have a lot of holes to fill. The competition during the spring went well, and I think the kids enjoyed having pads on again.
“We’re looking forward to next season and seeing what we can do.”