West Bloomfield linebacker Cornell Wheeler named winner of STATE CHAMPS! Anvil Award for 2019
To make an anvil a useful tool, rather than a lump of iron, you need a hammer.
And, boy, does the Anvil Award ever get one of those this year.
The hammer of the West Bloomfield defense, University of Michigan-bound middle linebacker Cornell Wheeler, is the winner of the second-annual STATE CHAMPS! Anvil Award, given to the best lineman or linebacker in the state.
“My coaches always tell me, ‘Be the hammer, not the nail,’ so every time, I want to start the game off hitting, going fast, getting fast. Definitely when I get that first hit, it’s over. I’m rolling now,” said Wheeler, who learned at a young age he’d rather be the hitter than the one getting hit, when he was learning to love the game, messing around in the back yard with his older brother. “That’s the only sport I can play where I can hit people legally.”
In 12 games anchoring a defense that allowed just 11.8 points per game, Wheeler racked up 130 tackles — 10.8 per contest — 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
As a junior, Wheeler recorded 165 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one pass deflection, earning Associated Press Division 1-2 All-State honors.
That’s what Wheeler is known for — hitting, often and hard.
“Downhill thumper. That’s what people call me. They say I’m an old-school linebacker. I like to hit. I’m fast, physical, sideline-to-sideline,” Wheeler said.
Sometimes, that’s hard to rein in.
“Oh, absolutely … Player safety is our biggest thing that we try to limit the amount of hitting we do in practice. I remember — you go over their training, and you hand out the equipment, you’re like ‘First day, all right, helmets and shoulder pads.’ You kind of go over, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve got rules, how we practice, and how we hit.’ And Cornell was the first one that was like ‘Coach, what do you mean we can’t hit like that?’ I’m like, ‘Cornell, we’re not getting after each other every day,’” West Bloomfield coach Ron Bellamy said, admitting he needed to give his linebacker a reminder occasionally that a red jersey means ‘Don’t touch’ in practice.
“Absolutely. If he felt like the offense wasn’t giving enough in practice, and the offense was out of synch — we’re a heavy blitz team, and Cornell sometimes would blitz and hit the red jersey. I’m like, ‘Cornell, you CANNOT hit the red jersey!’ He’s like, ‘Coach, I gotta get ‘em tougher.’”
Wheeler had his own toughening up process with his older brother, Christopher, 10 years his senior, who played running back at Troy High.
“Really, my brother, he motivated me every game. Before the game, we’d talk on the phone,” Wheeler said, whose brother helped him grow to love the game. “I was about 10 years old. I’ve always been a bigger kid, and I remember my brother would just tell me ‘Just hit ‘em! Just hit ‘em!’ I got mad, and I hit them, and was like ‘This is kind of fun. I think I could do this.’ Ever since then, I just loved playing defense, playing linebacker, and being physical.”
He had to grow into it, though. At first, the age difference meant there was a size difference … but it was a gap that eventually closed.
Eventually, Wheeler became big enough to catch — and tackle — his older brother.
“Oh, yeah. I’d say freshman year, really. We were working out a lot, and we were running, and I was right behind him. Growing up, he used to just dust me, but it was a competition now,” Wheeler said. “Growing up, we always used to work out a lot, and over the years, the height just took over. He and his friends would be throwing me around, playing football. Definitely, growing up, the size caught up to him.”
That was what impressed Bellamy most when Wheeler showed up four years ago. The size.
“His freshman year, he started four games for us, and at that moment, you saw a 14-year-old kid that didn’t look like a 14-year-old kid. He looked like he was a junior in high school. Making mistakes, as he should. But you saw a kid that was not afraid to make mistakes,” the coach said. “At that moment I was like, ‘Oh, this kid’s got a shot to be pretty good.’”
Wheeler was also someone who was a natural leader.
He was enough of a vocal leader to be voted team captain as a junior, on a defense that included current Penn State linebacker Lance Dixon, then a senior, as well as classmate safety Makari Paige, who will join Wheeler at Michigan.
“His sophomore year. We had some dudes out there. He was lined up next to Lance Dixon. His junior year, Lance transitioned from safety to linebacker. We said ‘Hey, this is what we want you to do, Lance: Let the young buck run the defense,’” Bellamy said. “At that point, we knew he was the leader, the leader of our defense. He was making all the calls. He’s the alpha male, the alpha dog. He was ready for that leadership role.”
Growing up a Michigan fan — and playing for a coach in Bellamy who himself suited up for the Wolverines — it wasn’t shocking when Wheeler committed to U-M early, at the end of September, 2018, rather than wait on other offers. He chose Michigan from among 12 offers, which included Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa State and Syracuse, as well as Big Ten teams in U-M, Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana and Nebraska, and a handful of Mid-American Conference teams.
According to 247Sports, Wheeler is among the top 20 inside linebackers in the nation, and the 12th-best prospect in Michigan in the 2020 class.
Wheeler has been an active recruiter for the Wolverines since his commitment.
Michigan’s in-state recruiting class this year also includes Port Huron Northern defensive end Braiden McGregor, Belleville corner Andre Seldon and Wheeler’s current teammate, Paige.
“Actually, being little, I remember my room was always Maize and Blue. I knew Michigan was a special place for me,” Wheeler said. “My mom was the first person I called. She just broke down. I’ll never forget that day. … Shocked. Very shocked. But so joyful that I have the opportunity to play college football for free. Just thankful — blessed is not even the word.”
Wheeler grew up with posters of Wolverines on his walls, and he reminds his coach of one of U-M’s great linebackers.
“Larry Foote. He reminds me a lot of Foote. They’re not the fastest or most athletic guy, but what he does is he’s super instinctive, and he loves the game, and when he gets there, he’s going to let you know he’s there,” Bellamy said, admitting that he’d probably have been looking over his shoulder in his playing days on a crossing route, knowing a guy like Wheeler was in the area.
“You’re watching film, breaking down your opponents, and you know what their tendencies are, and you know when crossing routes are coming and you’re like, ‘Oh, I hope he doesn’t hurt this kid …’ That’s what Cornell is known for, he’s known for his high level of physicality. When he’s on your side, it’s a good thing.”
The Lakers won 36 games in Wheeler’s four years on the squad, claiming two Oakland Activities Association Red Division titles, earning a berth in the playoffs each season, and making it to the Division 1 finals in 2017.
The other three finalists for the Anvil Award were Clarkston junior OL/DL Rocco Spindler (the winner of the fan vote), Belleville OL/DL Damon Payne and Sterling Heights Stevenson OL/DL Giovanni El-Hadi. None of the four made the state finals, but Payne and El-Hadi’s teams bowed out in the semifinals, while Wheeler’s West Bloomfield squad lost to Belleville in regionals for the second straight year.
Wheeler was judged the best by the STATE CHAMPS! panel of experts and contributors, using the formula of performance throughout the season (30 percent), level of competition (20), online vote (20), big-game performance (15), team success (10) and highly recruited athlete (5).
“I didn’t think I was going to win it, but I’m definitely blessed to win it, so I’m thankful,” Wheeler said. “It’s just a blessing, really. Just thankful for all the hard work my parents have done for me, all the good people in my life. … Just let them know that we’re not done yet. There’s more things coming.”
Previous Anvil Award winner:
2018 — Marcel Lewis, LB, Clinton Township Chippewa Valley