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LIKE SO MANY OTHERS, MARKUS WHEATON GREW UP WITH THE RADIO CALL. HE CAN hear it in his head, the announcer's voice rising in excitement until it is almost a wail: "Kenny Wheaton's gonna score! Kenny Wheaton's gonna score!" It was the seminal moment in Oregon's football history, an interception return for a touch-down that helped send the Ducks to the 1995 Rose Bowl; it was produced by his cousin, and ... well, given that pedigree there was no way Markus Wheaton would become a Beaver, right?
That's what Mike Riley thought. When Wheaton first showed up on his recruiting radar as a speedy wide receiver from Chandler, Ariz., he asked his assistants: "Do you know who his cousin is?" Not to mention—and cover your ears for a moment, Beavers fans—Wheaton freely admits that as a child, "I loved the Ducks."
Yet here he is in Corvallis. He preferred Oregon State over Oregon and other suitors. And in his third season he'll be counted on as perhaps the Beavers' most potent playmaker. "He's got tons of ability," Riley says. "He can make plays. He can catch. He can run like the wind."
Wheaton's emergence began last season. He'd been used sparingly as a freshman, in 2009, and most people expected him to make incremental progress as a sophomore last year. But when star receiver James Rodgers suffered a season-ending left-knee injury in the fifth game, Wheaton became quarterback Ryan Katz's primary target and led the team with 55 catches for 675 yards and four touchdowns. He also took over Rodgers's role on Oregon State's go-to play, the flysweep, and rushed for a total of 222 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
"For a couple of years he brought his talent," Riley says. "As he grew last year he started bringing maturity to his play." That development continued during spring practice, when Wheaton occasionally dominated Beavers defensive backs.
His continued growth is imperative as the offense changes with the departure of tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and will likely lean on the passing game. Meanwhile James Rodgers's status remains uncertain after two knee surgeries, which means Wheaton's playmaking ability and his embracing of a leadership role have become particularly essential. The increased maturity might have been enhanced by a mission trip Wheaton made to Guatemala over spring break, just before spring practice began. Along with several other Oregon State athletes, he helped build a house for a needy family, and he says it was a transformational experience.
"It was amazing," Wheaton says. "Just seeing how they live, their everyday lives, makes you realize that we're really fortunate."
Wheaton provided a glimpse of his promise with 10 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown in a Civil War loss to Oregon last year, but the family bragging rights still remain with Kenny. Markus wants to beat the Ducks this season, and he says he doesn't care how it happens. But yes, it has crossed his mind, the delicious possibility of prompting some broadcaster to produce another signature call—"Markus Wheaton's gonna score! Markus Wheaton's gonna score!"—in a signature Oregon State moment against its in-state rivals.
His coach chuckles at the thought. "That," Riley says, "would be kind of fun—and he's capable of doing it."