Joshua Wheeler could feel himself losing control after stumbling over a Florida player Saturday as he closed in on Luke Del Rio during North Texas’ game against the Gators.
The UNT junior linebacker didn’t know it then, but he was about to become infamous among fans of one of college football’s storied programs.
Wheeler launched himself toward Florida’s quarterback. By the time he realized the moment of impact would come too late to be legal, there was no way he could stop.
Wheeler plowed into Del Rio, knocked him out of the game with a sprained left knee and opened himself up to a torrent of criticism this week as the Mean Green (1-2) prepare for their Conference USA opener at Rice (0-3).
Wheeler now has ended SMU quarterback Matt Davis’ season and severely injured Del Rio on what his coaches and teammates say were a pair of clean plays in the span of three games.
Florida coach Jim McElwain didn’t see it that way. Neither did Gator fans, who have bombarded the soft-spoken junior with hate-filled messages following Florida’s 32-0 win.
“I got slammed pretty hard on Twitter,” Wheeler said. “I had never experienced something like that. You hear about that happening, but it was new for me. I didn’t like it too much, some of the things that were said.
“People said that I’m a dirty player. That was the worst part. I take that seriously. I just try to come out and compete. It was unfortunate but wasn’t intentional. People are trying to make it sound like it was.”
One tweet called Wheeler “a thug.”
“Joshua Wheeler should be locked up for targeting Del Rio,” another tweet read.
“This is the loser poor sport who tried to break Luke Del Rio’s leg: NCAAF #18 Joshua Wheeler,” read a third, with a link to an internet bio of Wheeler.
McElwain was livid after the hit. He walked out toward the middle of the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, gestured and yelled toward UNT’s sideline with Del Rio still lying on the turf surrounded by medical personnel.
UNT coach Seth Littrell responded by walking toward the middle of the field as well following Wheeler’s hit, which drew a roughing the passer penalty and put Del Rio out for two to three weeks.
“No one is going to come over and yell at me or my sideline and say that we don’t have integrity or play the game the right way,” Littrell said. “Those are not the facts. I am not going to allow that to happen.”
McElwain added to the scrutiny Wheeler has been under this week by indicating that he believes the hit was a dirty play.
When asked if he thought the hit was legal, McElwain responded, “I don’t know; you guys saw it.”
McElwain also accused UNT of committing multiple targeting violations this season for illegal shots at opponents — a claim Littrell disputed.
A headline in the Gainesville Sun the day after UNT’s loss to Florida read: “Cheap shot may affect season.”
The injury Davis suffered after a Wheeler hit only complicated matters.
Davis suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on what appeared to be a simple form tackle by Wheeler in UNT’s season opener.
Can lightning strike twice when it comes to one player injuring a pair of quarterbacks and wreaking havoc on their teams’ seasons in the span of three weeks?
Littrell says that is exactly what happened to Wheeler, who has become a favorite of his coaches, teammates and fans in his short time at UNT.
Littrell said Wheeler has an infectious smile and described him as a great teammate who often answers his coaches with a “yes, sir” or “no, sir.”
UNT fans have come to know Wheeler for the free-flowing black dreadlocks that spill out of his helmet.
“These people know nothing about the kid,” Littrell said of those who have criticized Wheeler. “That is what is frustrating. He takes it personally. He is an unbelievable person. If anyone knew him who was saying those things, they wouldn’t be saying them.
“He didn’t mean to do it. He was playing hard and trying to make a play.”
Ask UNT’s players and coaches, and they will say that unrelenting effort is what has made Wheeler the player he is today.
“Josh isn’t a dirty player,” UNT wide receiver Thaddeous Thompson said. “He just plays hard. He felt like he could get to [Del Rio]. He was too late but had already left his feet.”
Talent for getting to the QB
Wheeler wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for the tenacity he shows while chasing quarterbacks.
The skill has helped him become a starter at the Football Bowl Subdivision level after a long journey to reach that goal.
Wheeler was a standout player at South Grand Prairie but didn’t receive much interest from college recruiters.
The coaches at Tyler Junior College gave Wheeler a chance. They met him at a McDonald’s in the summer of 2014 so that he and a teammate could sign national letters of intent.
That scene was far from what most highly recruited players experience during signing day ceremonies — balloons, streamers and attention from classmates and the media.
“Josh played with some guys who were big-time players,” Tyler defensive line coach Jessie Green said. “He was overlooked. We found out about him and signed him.”
Wheeler took off once he arrived in Tyler. He finished third nationally among junior college players with 16 sacks as a sophomore last season, a performance that earned him All-America honorable mention.
“Josh came here and grinded his behind off,” Green said. “He’s very smart and has football savvy. He did everything right here.”
The problem was that Wheeler is 6-3 and 240 pounds. A lack of size scared off more-prominent programs but didn’t deter UNT. Wheeler signed with the Mean Green in December.
Wheeler immediately fit in at UNT both on and off the field. He moved from defensive end to an outside linebacker spot in the Mean Green’s new 3-3-5 scheme and has settled in as a starter.
Wheeler has a team-high two sacks, ranks fourth among UNT players with 12 tackles and has forced a fumble.
Wheeler’s teammates have quickly developed a rapport with him. They describe him as quiet and smart.
“He’s quiet most of the time, but he can get rowdy sometimes,” said linebacker Fred Scott, one of Wheeler’s best friends on the team. “It’s funny when he does get rowdy.”
Maintaining his drive
UNT wants nothing less from Wheeler, who has developed into an impact player on the major-college level because of his rowdy, tenacious personality on the field.
“I tell Josh to keep playing hard,” Littrell said. “You have to have thick skin in this business whether you are a player or a coach.
“What matters is what your teammates, coaches and the people in this room think about you. We are the ones that have to go to battle together.”
Wheeler was sure to mention that he wishes nothing but the best for Del Rio and Davis. He said that he hopes Florida goes on to have a good season now that the Gators’ game with UNT is in the past.
Wheeler quickly turned his attention to this week’s C-USA opener while dealing with the attention he has received since his hit on Del Rio.
UNT’s game against Rice marks a new beginning for the Mean Green, who hope to jump into the conference title chase in their first league game.
“The coaches told me that injuries happen and that I was playing by [butt] off,” Wheeler said. “It was unfortunate what happened to the guy [Del Rio], but it’s a new week. I have to move on. The coaches told me to keep my head up.”
That was tough to do at times this week as the criticism rained down on Wheeler, who relied on his coaches and teammates to help him maintain focus.
Wheeler has come a long way from that McDonald’s in Grand Prairie because of the tenacity he shows on the field.
He’s not about to change now.
“People are going to express their feelings,” Wheeler said. “There is nothing I can do about it. I’m going to keep playing and giving great effort. That is all I can control.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.