Chad Wheeler started at left tackle for four years at Southern Cal and wasn’t drafted in April.
Wheeler knows why. It’s not just his injury history. It’s a sordid past checkered with character concerns, personal issues and a 2015 altercation with police.
And so Wheeler knows he has a lot to prove, not just to disprove doubters but to validate the Giants’ trust in signing him and lining him up as Ereck Flowers’ primary backup at left tackle in training camp.
“You’ve got to start out by doing everything right,” Wheeler, 23, told the Daily News after Saturday’s practice at the Giants’ training center in East Rutherford. “It’s like another chip on my shoulder, because that’s just there forever. My little sister could type my name into Google and see all that stuff that’s happened, my little brother, my mom. So I’ve just got to prove myself every day.
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“And for the Giants,” Wheeler added, “(it’s about) just being accountable. I think that speaks a lot for a player: being on time for everything, (putting) 100 percent into every meeting, (and participating in) every community event – try to get involved with New York and New Jersey.”
A Dec. 2015 incident specifically sticks to Wheeler’s name: the USC tackle was not arrested, but he reportedly threatened a teammate, punched the walls and windows of an apartment, got into an altercation with police, and then was taken to a Los Angeles hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
An NBC News report alleged Wheeler was “possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol” and therefore did not recognize a fellow offensive lineman, so he threatened him. That prompted his outburst, a call to police, and then officers firing bean-bag rounds at a fleeing Wheeler to subdue him.
Wheeler cited personal issues and apologized, however, saying in a statement in March 2016: “I regret what I did. I apologized to my coach, my teammates and fans. I did have personal issues (at the time).” And then in preparation for this year’s draft, the Giants’ homework turned up a player and person worth pursuing to the tune of a $ 20,000 signing bonus, a significant chunk of the $ 98,000 teams can spend on undrafted free agents.
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Wheeler has rewarded the Giants so far with an impressive work ethic. He stayed in New Jersey for two weeks after June minicamp to train at the team facility with a group that included Flowers, right tackle Bobby Hart, offensive guard Justin Pugh and some defensive linemen.
Wheeler’s offseason work is critical considering another knock on him was that he had constantly been hurt. He missed time each of the last three seasons at USC and missed the 2013 spring due to a knee injury, after missing part of his senior high school season due to shoulder surgery.
“I just took into account what the veterans told us,” Wheeler said. “They gave us tips. (Offensive line) coach (Mike) Solari had them stand up in front of us and share with us how they prepare when they have that month off for the season, so a bunch of those practices are like doing your drills, strength, conditioning and just mentally preparing for the season.”
Wheeler also convinced the Giants he could handle himself on the field.
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“I think I demonstrated that in the spring by just being fundamentally sound, being athletic, and competing against defensive linemen of this caliber and not getting completely destroyed, I guess,” Wheeler said with a humble laugh.
Wheeler fortunately is not uncomfortable in this position, though. He is used to being both overlooked one minute and relied upon the next as a solution at a critical position.
He arrived as only a three-star recruit to the Trojans after graduating a semester early from Santa Monica (Calif.) High School, redshirted his freshman year of college in 2012, and then locked down the left for the next four seasons, starting 14 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and 46 for his career.
“I was a three-star recruit going to the Trojans. ‘Why are we offering this dude a scholarship?’ Everything,” Wheeler joked about past criticisms. “It’s the same situation (now). I carry a chip on my shoulder. I have to do the extra work. Everything has to be perfect if not close to perfect, and there’s no leeway to mess up or have missed assignments or not be physical.”
Even so, the stakes could be especially high for Wheeler in the context of the Giants’ 2017 season. Flowers, 23, their 6-6, 325-pound starting left tackle, was one of the Giants’ weakest links in his second NFL season of 2016, and yet GM Jerry Reese did not replace him or sign any competition to push him.
McAdoo may have other proposed solutions before he would call Wheeler’s number 63, like reshuffling his starters, signing a mediocre veteran off the street, or giving signing D.J. Fluker (the second team right guard) a shot. But so far, Wheeler has been the next man up whenever Flowers has come off the field.
And while Wheeler admitted to having wide eyes the first time he faced Jason Pierre-Paul in practice, Wheeler doesn’t fear his heightened level of competition. He simply respects it.
“One of the first plays we had in the spring JPP lined up in front of me, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, alright, I’ve got to get my kick step right, and he didn’t completely embarrass me,” Wheeler said with a laugh. “You’ve got to bring you’re A-game against those guys every play. They’re just freaks of nature. So you’ve just got to be fundamentally sound and be consistent.”
Wheeler’s defining quality is his athleticism. Giants defensive end Romeo Okwara can confirm that, having faced Wheeler head-to-head while playing for Notre Dame.
“USC tackles typically are athletic,” Okwara said. “(Wheeler) was, too. We had some good battles.”
Wheeler stands tall at 6-7, 312 pounds, but he isn’t built like the typical NFL left tackle, who is often simply the largest person on the field. Wheeler’s ability to move is what helped him hone his skills and earn the starting job at USC in practice against now-Giants teammate Devon Kennard.
His strength is cited as a weakness (He bench pressed only 15 reps at the NFL combine). But Wheeler defended “I can overpower with leverage, too” and said he is committed to demonstrating the qualities McAdoo wants to see in his linemen.
Wheeler is buying in.
“We have to be very physical, nasty,” Wheeler said. “We have to establish dominance in the game, and fundamentals. We hit a lot on fundamentals. The greatest tackles, guards and centers are fundamentally sound.”
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