There might not have been a bigger playmaker for North Texas defensively last season than Joshua Wheeler.
The Tyler Junior College transfer seemed like he was all over the place while racking up team highs in both sacks (5 1/2) and tackles for loss (7 1/2), and that was just for starters. He also forced two fumbles and finished with 42 tackles.
That production made his seeming disappearance early this season so glaring. Wheeler didn't play in UNT's season-opening win over Lamar, was out of the starting lineup until the third week of the season and only returned to his familiar Jack linebacker spot last week in a win over UAB.
Wheeler finally looked like himself again in the Mean Green's 46-43 win over the Blazers while posting his first two sacks of the season. The senior will look to build on that performance Saturday when UNT travels to Southern Mississippi.
"This past game was my coming out party," Wheeler said. "I felt more comfortable and got a few plays under my belt. It felt good to be out there running around."
Wheeler's resurgence couldn't have come at a better time for UNT as it prepares to face Southern Miss in a showdown of potential contenders for the Conference USA West Division title.
UNT (2-2, 1-0 C-USA) got off to a good start in league play last week and will look to take another step toward a bowl berth when it faces Southern Miss in the Golden Eagles' conference opener.
Southern Miss (2-1) enters its game against UNT off a bye week and has won consecutive games after opening the season with a tough 24-17 loss to Kentucky behind a stout defense that is allowing 13.7 points per game.
Points could be tough to come by for UNT, making the play of its defense — and Wheeler — all the more important.
"He brings a lot of energy and athleticism to our defense," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "He is relentless, never gives up on a play and runs to the football. He overcomes a lot with being relentless. He is a great practice player and someone you root for because he wants it so bad."
Wheeler wanted to make an impact even more after a tough offseason. A nagging back injury slowed him through fall practice and the first three games of the season.
"I had been dealing with some injuries from the spring and wasn't rehabbing like I should have," Wheeler said. "It caught up with me. The trainers did an unbelievable job of helping me rehab and get back out there.
"I feel great now. I thank them every day."
UNT will need Wheeler to be at his best again this week as it tries to come out of a defensive funk. The Mean Green coughed up a 23-7 lead against UAB.
The Blazers scored a pair of late touchdowns to tie the game at 43 before UNT's special teams and Jeffery Wilson bailed the Mean Green out.
Running back Evan Johnson returned a kickoff 48 yards in the final minute. A 34-yard run from Wilson set UNT up in field goal range, and Trevor Moore kicked a 22-yard field goal with seven seconds left to win it.
UNT is allowing 35.5 points per game. The Mean Green's struggles have been mainly in their secondary, which has allowed seven touchdown passes of at least 35 yards.
The best way for UNT to help its secondary improve could be putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That's where Wheeler comes in.
"Wheeler is fast and strong," said UNT offensive tackle Riley Mayfield, who faces Wheeler in practice. "You can't anticipate what he is going to do. He can step one way and beat you with his speed or step the other way, get his hands in your chest and bull-rush you. He will be a big force for us the rest of the year."
That is UNT's hope as it prepares to face a vastly different Southern Miss offense than what it saw a year ago. The Golden Eagles were forced to start Keon Howard at quarterback last season in place of Nick Mullens, who now is on the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad.
UNT harassed Howard all night. The Mean Green finished with three interceptions and four sacks while limiting Howard to 135 yards on 10-of-26 passing.
Southern Miss will be a lot more dangerous this year, thanks to the emergence of Kwadra Griggs. The junior is averaging 227 passing yards per game and has thrown seven touchdowns with just one interception.
Containing Griggs could be a challenge for UNT, which also will have to keep track of running back Ito Smith. The senior is averaging 111.0 rushing yards.
UNT feels a lot better about its chances with Wheeler back at full strength after his breakout game last week.
"He is one of those guys who gives 100 percent," Littrell said. "We are excited to have him back."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
Featured photo: North Texas linebacker Joshua Wheeler (18) celebrates with teammates after he sacking UAB quarterback A.J. Erdely during the Mean Green's 46-43 win over the Blazers at Apogee Stadium last week (Jeff Woo/DRC)