Wilhelm Leads Buckeyes' Defense

Dec 29, 2002

AP Sports Writer

PHOENIX (AP) – Mention Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm’s name, and noteveryone on top-ranked Miami responds right away.

Pop in a video of Wilhelm in action, and the Hurricanes immediatelyrecognize the All-American’s moves.

Asked about Wilhelm, Miami center Brett Romberg wasn’t quite certain what tosay.

“He’s the three-technique? No? He’s the middle linebacker? Oh. I don’t evenknow him. I’m sorry, man. I just see different-colored jerseys and numbers,”Romberg said.

After Wilhelm was described to him, Romberg remembered seeing the defenderon game tapes.

“He’s a big dude, right? He’s bigger than our right guard, for crying outloud. He’s going to make my head sore all night long, I can imagine. He’s goingto come downhill a lot,” Romberg said.

“He’s aggressive. I don’t know how he is covering the pass, but I know he’sa good run-stopper. I’m sure we’ll meet a few times in the game and exchange afew words and then we’ll go on about our way, I guess.”

Actually, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Wilhelm probably won’t do a lot of talkingon the field Friday night, when Miami and No. 2 Ohio State meet in the FiestaBowl for the national championship.

He is not prone to talking trash. What he does do is prepare for a game,spending hours and hours watching tapes to learn the nuances of an opponent’soffense.

Wilhelm figures the Buckeyes will fare better than the oddsmakers predictedby making Miami a two-touchdown favorite.

“Everyone wants the blowout – teams winning by 35 or 40 points to benational champions,” Wilhelm said. “We’re a team that’s survived a lot ofclose calls. But it also speaks to the type of team we are. We are resilient.We find a way to win. No matter what adversity we face throughout the game, weovercome it.”

Last season, he tore ligaments in his right ankle, an injury that robbed himof his aggressiveness. Some teammates wondered what to expect from him thisyear.

“The question was: Is he going to come out and be tentative and sheepish oris he going to come out like a lion?” free safety Donnie Nickey said.

Wilhelm had surgery in January, and even though he was unable to practice inthe spring, he studied films, lifted weights and remained in topflightcondition.

By the time the Buckeyes met for preseason camp in the summer, Wilhelm wasNo. 2 on the depth chart behind Fred Pagac Jr. He wasn’t angry that thecoaching staff demoted him.

“It was just a matter of time for me,” Wilhelm said. “I knew the timewould come.”

During the first scrimmage in Ohio Stadium, Wilhelm went 50 snaps on defenseand made 16 tackles.

“The coaches were like, ‘OK, he’s back. He’s getting his spot back,”‘ hesaid. “I felt free out there. It’s something I had as a sophomore. I was ableto run sideline to sideline without any hindrance. I had worked on the systemthrough my head because I wasn’t able to go out and practice it for so long andit was easy for me to see things.”

He led the team with 111 tackles, including 16˝ for losses and three sacks.He was the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year.

“I always thought he was good, but he went beyond that this year,” headcoach Jim Tressel said.

Defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio added, “He’s a very, very smartfootball player. He makes a lot of calls out there, he’s rangy, he makes a lotof tackles. He’s the center of our defense.”

And Wilhelm is confident the Hurricanes will be familiar with him and histeammates when the Fiesta Bowl is over.

“We’re one win away from being the national champion – and people are stillgoing to talk,” he said. “But we’re going to be the ones walking around withrings on our fingers.”