Transfer report: What to expect from former Michigan LB Cornell Wheeler
Kansas football added another potential impact player via the transfer portal on Monday, when former Michigan reserve linebacker Cornell Wheeler announced his decision to transfer to the University of Kansas.
Wheeler, who spent one season with the Wolverines, was rated a four-star inside linebacker coming out of high school in 2020. Wheeler attended West Bloomfield High School during his final prep season and played under Ron Bellamy, who now coaches safeties at the University of Michigan.
During an interview with Jon Kirby of Jayhawk Slant, Wheeler cited the opportunity for early playing time as a reason for why he ultimately chose to transfer to KU.
If Wheeler does get on the field right away for the Lance Leipold-led Jayhawks, this scouting report should give Kansas fans a glimpse at what the transfer linebacker has to offer:
Key stats: Because Wheeler did not see game action as a freshman at Michigan, his high school stats and tape will have to suffice for this report. Wheeler piled up 130 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery during his senior season. He was even selected as MLive Detroit’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Body type/athletic ability: Listed at 6 feet and 231 pounds on Michigan’s roster, Wheeler has the build of your typical two-down thumper at linebacker. He’s got solid length and a bulky stature that should make for an ideal fit in a 4-3 scheme. Wheeler might not be the fastest player on the field, but he shows the ability to get downhill in a hurry when he makes the correct read.
Strengths: Play strength, run defense and mental processing
Wheeler’s physicality is evident throughout his final highlight reel from his senior season, which was posted on Hudl on Dec. 18, 2019. It is honestly just six-plus minutes of Wheeler emphatically putting the opponent on the ground whenever given the opportunity. He plays like a classic hard-nosed linebacker.
The numbers really do tell Wheeler’s story. Prior to his 130-tackle season as a senior, Wheeler actually accumulated 165 stops during his junior campaign. That type of production didn't happen by accident. Wheeler is very good in run defense.
Wheeler has the size and strength to fight through blocks while trying to process a play. When he does commit, Wheeler can get upfield in a hurry to make the tackle. He meets ball carriers with great leverage, and often demonstrates the ability to finish with authority.
But the thing that really stood out about Wheeler’s tape was how often it seemed like he was one step ahead of everyone else on the field. He displayed good mental processing, which showed up whenever he sniffed out a screen pass to deliver a punishing blow to the running back.
It turns out there was a reason why Wheeler was able to blow these plays up. His high school coach, Bellamy, said he loved to watch film during an interview with 247Sports in September of 2018. And the former high school coach knew it was over for the other team whenever Wheeler recognized what an offense was trying to do.
“You know when the team’s going to run the screen or going to run the draw — whatever it may be — and he's on the field screaming out what's about to happen," Bellamy said. “And you’re just like, 'Oh, man. Bless these kids that are about to get hit by Cornell.'”
“He’s that type of guy that has total understanding of the game,” Bellamy added. “He’s a quiet kid off the field, but he’s a monster on the field.”
One reason for concern: Pass coverage
There weren’t many plays of Wheeler in pass coverage on his final highlight film, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. As an inside linebacker, it is not like Wheeler will be asked to do much outside of his comfort zone in pass coverage.
That said, Wheeler’s impact on the KU defense might be limited if he’s not able to play on all three downs. The Big 12 is a passing league after all, and Wheeler is going to have to hold his own in certain situations to stay on the field.
Given Wheeler’s mental processing, this does feel like an area where he can improve once he becomes more familiar with the system. He probably won’t have to match up with a receiver in the slot that often, but he should be able to defend certain areas of the field.
Overall thoughts and projection: Like most of the transfers before him this offseason, Wheeler likely didn’t come unless he was getting early playing time.
Wheeler’s situation is a bit different since he has four years of eligibility remaining, so the Jayhawks don’t need to rush him onto the field. Still, given Wheeler’s pedigree as a prospect and KU’s current linebacker situation, he could have a decent role on this team right away.
If Wheeler is going to have success early on, it will likely come as a run defender. He will be able to rack up tackles in a hurry, if his skill set is able to translate. Wheeler should also continue to improve as he becomes more familiar with KU’s scheme.
The Jayhawks might have landed a player who can hold things down in the middle of their defense for multiple years.