Written and narrated by Michael Spath
Too often in sports, we throw out the term “freak athlete” but in the case of Tyrone Wheatley Jr., we really mean it. Michigan has never had a 6-6, 276-pound tight end with his speed, quickness, footwork and hands. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, his father was a world-class sprinter in a fullback’s frame.
Wheatley and fifth-year senior Ian Bunting are hoping to become the most productive tight end duo Michigan has ever had – that record currently belongs to Jake Butt and AJ Williams, who combined for 63 receptions in 2015. For that to occur, Bunting needs to have an Eric Kattus-like senior season – Kattus making 38 grabs, including eight touchdowns, in 1985 – and Wheatley needs to add another 30 catches.
Are they capable? Sure, but as we examine their Michigan Football Dopplegangers, a 40- or 50-catch combined campaign seems more likely. Williams was a 6-6, 285-pound tight end as a senior in 2015, and while it is easy to draw comparisons for Wheatley, the current redshirt sophomore is both a better receiver and athlete than Williams. A more apt likeness comes in the form of Mark Campbell, who played for the Wolverines from 1995-98.
Working in All-American Jerame Tuman’s shadow, the 6-6, 253-pound Campbell had soft hands, catching 32 balls in his career, including a career-high 13 as a redshirt sophomore in 1996. Campbell was an underrated receiver that was better known for his blocking prowess, allowing Tuman to become a go-to receiving target for Brian Griese and then Tom Brady.
So far in his career, Wheatley has also served more as a blocker than a receiver, recording three receptions last year, including a 21-yard touchdown against Illinois that showed off that speed and athleticism as he ran a seam route, and split a pair of defenders en route to the end zone.
Wheatley could always overtake Bunting this fall and become the No. 1 tight end on this team, but like Campbell, he will do his job – all of his job, blocking especially – without fanfare or complaint that more targets aren’t coming his way.
The 6-7, 252-pound Bunting showed the kind of weapon he can be in the Orange Bowl against Florida State when he caught three balls for 40 yards in place of an injured Jake Butt. Bunting was more productive in that game alone than he was the rest of his junior season.
And it’s that reason why we must be careful making grandiose predictions and comparisons to players like Kattus or Bennie Joppru, who also had a huge senior season. Bunting, instead, has reminded us of someone like Tyler Ecker, who was 6-6, 246 pounds during his career from 2003-06. Ecker was a rare physical specimen and we kept waiting for him to put up 30, 40, 50 catches. It never happened. Ecker’s best year was a 21-catch performance as a junior in 2005.
As a senior Ecker limped to the finish line with just 12 catches, though in fairness he missed a few games with an injury. Still, had he played in all 13, he was only on pace for 19 receptions.
How will we remember Bunting? Like Butt or Kattus or Joppru, who we appreciate for their outstanding final seasons? Or like Ecker, Shawn Thompson and Kevin Koger – left wishing we had seen his skill set put to better use.