Now focused on football, former three-sport athlete may be Penn State's next breakout star

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State defensive back Zakee Wheatley, seen here at left making a tackle in the Blue-White spring game, may be a breakout star this fall.
Zakee Wheatley

Zakee Wheatley was a three-sport athlete most of his life.

He played basketball, baseball and football until his sophomore year of high school, when he put his baseball glove away for good. Next came the basketball shoes after he graduated high school — although he still plays from time to time for fun with teammates.

That leaves just football for Wheatley.

"It was hard (to drop basketball)," he said. "But I knew what I needed to do. I knew what I wanted. I knew football was the sport for me. Football was always my first, my real love."

For the first time as a high-level athlete he's focused primarily on one sport. And now the Nittany Lion defensive back is primed to take a massive step forward in his second year with Penn State football.

Wheatley spent his first year on campus as a cornerback, where he used his 6-foot-2 frame and athletic talent to stay with wide receivers in practice. Eventually the Penn State staff determined that his abilities would be best used in a more central location and moved him to safety this offseason.

The news stung teammate — and classmate — Kalen King, who broke out as a corner last season.

"At corner I knew he was gonna be good," King said with a smile. "I was mad when they switched him to safety because I wanted him to stay at corner so we could be on the field at the same time. The coaches wanted better for him and he made the most of his opportunity when he switched to safety. He's a ball hawk."

Not a drastic transition: The transition to a new spot wasn't that drastic for the redshirt freshman. He had played safety in high school, along with playing corner, and was willing to play wherever the coaches needed him.

In fact one of the strongest skills he showed was taken from his days as a three-sport athlete. Wheatley was Penn State's "takeaway king" for spring ball, leading the team in turnovers forced. Five of those turnovers, teammate Ji'Ayir Brown said this spring, were interceptions. The redshirt freshman developed his ability to track the ball like he did while playing baseball and other positions on the football field.

"Playing receiver," Wheatley said. "Playing catch with my dad, all that. Playing baseball. ... When I'm on defense and the ball is in the air I just turn into a receiver. I don't really think much about defense or offense. That ball is mine."

More involved in stopping the run: Of course, tracking and taking the ball aren't the only aspects of playing safety. One of the biggest changes from corner to safety is the need to mix it up in the run game more. Playing more centrally means involving yourself more against the run and making plays that prevent big gains, while also stepping into the box and making plays near the line of scrimmage.

Wheatley, who weighed 180 pounds as a recruit and is now listed at 191 pounds, is more than willing to play that part, even if he's still evolving his body from a cornerback's to a safety's.

"I'm physical," he said. "I feel like if I was skinny or big, I'm always a physical player. I'm always trying to hit. Of course, at safety you're trying to maintain your body toward getting a little stronger and bigger to take on more hits throughout the game."

Versatility is key: The takeaways were the talk of spring practice — with head coach James Franklin, cornerbacks coach Terry Smith and teammates like Brown among a long list of people within the program to single out his successful stretch. However, it's the versatility that will dictate just how good Wheatley can be.

Thus far he's shown no reason to believe the sky isn't the limit. He has excellent cover skills, a willingness to step up and help against the run and the desire for greatness it takes to reach the next level. Not to mention, the hype from his teammates — like classmate Jeffrey Davis Jr. — and coaches who have praised his play.

"He's an amazing player whether it be at corner or safety," Davis Jr. said. "It was great seeing him transition to safety where he flourished in the spring. He's been an amazing player to watch. ... Seeing the plays he's made in the spring, it's amazing. I'm ready to see where he ends up this season and the player he becomes."

A rapid ascent: Wheatley has gone from a high three-star prospect to the talk of the program within only a year's time. His ascent from redshirt cornerback to potential starting safety has been an enormous rise in a minuscule amount of time and isn't the first safety to make that rise. Brown took a similar leap last season, albeit as a much more veteran player, and former safety Jaquan Brisker did the same after enrolling from Lackawanna College, although he was a highly-touted recruit as the No. 1 junior college safety in the country.

Penn State's success at safety has been apparent over the last few seasons in particular thanks to Brisker and Brown.

With any luck, Wheatley will be the next to burst into stardom.