The opposing coaches used to gawk.
Stand and gawk.
Sometimes point, or deliberate how or why or what. But mostly, standing at the 50-yard line, they gawked.
It was the way this 310-pound menace snapped off his routes in pregame warmups, cradled passes and manhandled his blocking assignments. Every movement so smooth and under control. He carried a gravity of attention, like the tallest kid in school.
Except in 2018, new Patriots offensive tackle Tyrone Wheatley Jr. was neither the tallest, nor the heaviest at Stony Brook, a small FCS program on Long Island. He was simply the most mystifying.
How did a 6-foot-6, 310-pound person play tight end? And why didn’t he play offensive line?
Five years ago, Wheatley Jr. transformed Stony Brook’s offense upon arrival, despite showing up late to training camp with an injury and zero experience. He immediately mastered the playbook and tilted it toward a two-tight end system. Wheatley had transferred from Michigan, where he caught six passes over three seasons in the shadow of his father, ex-NFL running back and Michigan alum Tyrone Wheatley.
The Wolverines, according to Stony Brook head coach Chuck Priore, planned to move him to the offensive line that season. But Wheatley preferred to stay at tight end, where he could wring out whatever potential he had left at that position; a decision that brought him to Stony Brook. Priore agreed to keep him at tight end, though both player and coach understood if Wheatley wanted to pursue a future in the NFL — and he did — he would eventually pivot.
“(Wheatley) knew he wanted to play the next level,” said former Stony Brook offensive coordinator Carmen Felus, now an assistant at West Alabama. “And he approached each day, from the meetings walkthrough to practice, as if it was a job interview.”
Wheatley’s position coach, Stony Brook tight ends coach Steve Martino, remembers him arriving this way: “In the first practice we put him out there, the defensive guys were like, ‘Uh oh.’”
Nowadays, Wheatley is among five offensive tackles vying for playing time in New England. The Patriots traded young running back Pierre Strong for him in a 1-for-1 swap with the Browns last week. Wheatley is a developmental player with experience at both offensive tackle spots.
He began converting from tight end three years ago and has since bounced from the Bears to Las Vegas to Cleveland. Wheatley spent all of last year on the Browns’ practice squad. He is now enjoying his first days on a 53-man roster.
But what happened at Stony Brook, Wheatley’s last full season as a tight end, might offer a peek into his immediate future with the Patriots. There, Wheatley established himself as a rare player, and one who projects as a strong culture fit in New England. The Patriots require three traits in their offensive linemen.
First, above all else, is toughness.
“There were times you’d see him in the locker room after the game, and it’d be like he was through a battle,” Martino said. “But three days later, he’d be out there practicing. He played through a lot of stuff.”
Then, there’s intelligence.
“A lot of times big-time transfers, when they come in, it’s hard to get assimilated quickly to our culture and to our standards. He did,” Felus said. “High IQ, smart kid, good kid. So, he was very valuable.”
“He just understood the game,” Martino added. “For him to come in August and pick everything up, you could tell his football IQ was high.”
And finally, O-linemen must be “athletic enough.”
“He’s really athletic,” Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan said of Wheatley this summer. “He’s shown the ability to get on the edge and pass protect against good speed rushers. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
One of Stony Brook’s favorite plays was a run-pass option (RPO), where their quarterback either handed the ball off or passed to Wheatley down the seam based on the movement of an opposing safety. Wheatley’s size provided an instant mismatch in the end zone, something he could do as an eligible receiver in packages with six offensive linemen.
“We never wanted (Wheatley and former Stony Brook tight end Cal Daniels) to leave the field because we felt we presented a lot of matchup problems for defensive coordinators.” Felus said.
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Stony Brook often ran behind Wheatley instead (he finished with just six catches). Flip on his blocking highlights, and it’s easy to understand why.
“He would collapse the entire side,” Martino remembered. “And the thing that impressed me the most was that he was so athletic for his size. He wasn’t a slug at 310. He was athletic enough to move, and we’d split him out wide sometimes.”
It’s safe to say the Patriots won’t need to split Wheatley out for him to catch any eyeballs in New England. But for an offense with a history of utilizing extra O-linemen as tight ends, and an offensive line searching for itself, Wheatley could provide a surprising source of hope. And then the next coach caught gawking won’t be on the 50-yard line, but rather standing on the opposing sideline.
“Ty was a tremendous football player for us,” Priore said. “He and I talked several times and knew if he was going to get to the NFL, it was going to be as an O-lineman. And he’s got a chance. He’s really caught on, and I’m really excited. Great person. I hope he’ll help out the Patriots.”
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