JAMES CITY — It was a fitting that Thad Wheeler, a former William and Mary linebacker who once held a Georgia state high school record with a 325-pound power clean, chose the Warhill High weight room to talk about his first weeks as the school's football coach.
Wheeler supervised the recent renovation of the room and hopes to create a culture there that will breed excellence. Excellence like he knew as a linebacker on William and Mary's 2004 Division I-AA semifinalists and like he knew as an assistant coach to his father, Paul Wheeler, at Lafayette and Virginia high schools.
The first benchmark will be his debut as the Lions' coach in the 2014 season opener against Churchland on Thursday at Wanner Stadium. Wheeler talked about that and his first weeks at Warhill.
Q: When did you get started and what have you been able to accomplish with this team so far?
A: I got here the last week of school and we've been in kind of a construction phase in football and in the weight room.
Q: What do you emphasize in the weight room?
A: It's all based on ground-based exercises from the feet up to develop power, which is what football athletics is. Everything we do is to develop power and proper angles. We're not big on the body-building and bench-press aspects. We want to train them to move.
We're a ways away from that right now because we lost the offseason. It's no one's fault, it's just the way it is. We started late summer and are trying to catch up.
Q: When you don't have a full offseason with the kids, what's the biggest challenge?
A: It's not the kids fault, but the biggest challenge is getting them to bend and move correctly. With training in the offseason, we connect those movements to the field. On the field (now) we're still trying to get those movements we didn't get to develop in the offseason.
Q: Without that, how well have your kids done in practice?
A: The kids are doing great. They've bought in. We're kind of trying to change a culture here, and I've got no complaints with the way they've worked and bought into the system.
Q: Minus a superstar like (two-time Daily Press Male Athlete of the Year) Devonte Dedmon (now at W&M) what do you focus on?
A: That whole concept we're trying to sell is "team." We don't care who gets the credit. That was the beauty of the Kempsville scrimmage.
Look at the one score we had. The running back (Elijah Onks) was working hard, but the whole offensive line, our receiver (Keron Dedmon) and tight end (Clayton Osterloh) worked together.
Q: What's your best memory of the (2004) national semifinal season at William and Mary?
A: That we had fun playing together and the atmosphere we created with the (program's) first night football game (in the national semifinal) against James Madison and the (double overtime quarterfinal) win against Delaware. It's the friendships and the memories of changing things you take with you.
Q: There are four Bay Rivers District head coaches with William and Mary connections — you, Matt McLeod (Grafton), Lee Williams (Jamestown) and Andy Linn (Lafayette). Why does William and Mary do such a good job of preparing so many of you for coaching?
A: We've all had different experiences there. But it's a great place that focuses on not just athletics but the whole person. It's just a place that does things the right way.
Q: A lot of your assistant coaching was with your dad. What do you take from him that you carry into your first head-coaching job.
A: He really is very good at focusing on details. That's tough because it's easier to see the big picture. But understanding how fundamental the little things are to success is a big thing.
Q: How much are you enjoying working with your principal (Dr. Jeffrey Carroll) and athletic director (Dan Mullen)?
A: A lot. We're all working together as you can see in this weight room. The process for making the changes came from above.
Great football programs have great weight programs. Everybody's been on board to turn this into the best program possible. It's going to take years. It's a three-to-five-year vision.
Q: What do you know about Churchland?
A: They're athletic and big up front. But talking to our guys we're telling them it's more about worrying about ourselves and not defeating ourselves than worrying about Churchland.
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.