Before high school, Zakee Wheatley looked up to the players who moved through the Archbishop Spalding football program. Jayden Umbarger, who went on to Navy, was Wheatley’s biggest inspiration, as well as Logic Hudgens (Buffalo), Brevin Easton (Assumption), Jahmeer Carter (Virginia).
A few years later, it’s Wheatley and two teammates’ Big Ten offers that draw new players now. His classmate, senior tailback Jayon Venerable, declared his commitment to Maryland last summer, becoming Terps coach Mike Locksley’s first Class of 2021 recruit.
On Sunday, sophomore Kellan Wyatt announced he too, would be heading to Maryland. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound outside linebacker is listed as a three-star recruit by 247Sports.com.
As big-time commitments continue to multiply at Spalding, both coach Kyle Schmitt and players see Spalding football’s profile escalating, too. More and more kids are coming to Schmitt’s doorstep wanting to play in a Cavaliers uniform, and a higher caliber of player at that.
"I feel like we’re putting Spalding on the map. We’re making other players from across the state want to come to our school,” Wyatt said.
Before Wheatley made his commitment to Penn State, other Big Ten schools such as Northwestern, Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin came knocking.
“It is kind of up and coming, the Big Ten,” Wheatley said. “I can’t name too many players before than us three who went to the Big Ten. I don’t know as much, but definitely now, the Big Ten is really attached to Spalding.”
For a while, the Atlantic Coast Conference held sway at Spalding, and still does. Boston College, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pitt and Syracuse “recruit this school like Maryland does,” Schmitt said. Several Carolina schools, such as Duke and Wake Forest, show their faces sometimes, too.
“They try to treat this as close to in-state as they can,” Schmitt said.
But in the last few years, Schmitt estimates he communicates more with Big Ten coaches than any other conference. Rutgers and Michigan State are familiar. Chad Wilt, the defensive line coach at Minnesota, has come through, as has Northwestern tight ends coach Bob Heffner. Nebraska hung around Spalding last year, as did Ohio State and Michigan. Though Indiana running backs coach Mike Hart came around last year, Indiana and Iowa don’t really tread around often.
“I would say I’ve talked to Penn State and Maryland coaches more than any coaches in the country this past year," Schmitt said.
Schmitt, who took over as head coach in 2013, credits late coach Mike Whittles for the culture within Spalding’s program that transformed from a winless team to a new member of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference.
But as Spalding became more comfortable in the A Conference and recruiting increased because of it, Schmitt still focuses primarily on Anne Arundel County for potential incoming players, as well as the Anne Arundel Youth Football Association. He pulled in four kids from the Old Mill program just last year. Wyatt and Venerable are products of the AAYFA.
“It was one of my goals when I got here, to help raise [our] profile, but we have to make sure we’re staying with our roots," Schmitt said. “We won a lot of games with guys going to academies … and Division II, Division III. Our goal is to continue to keep bringing in Spalding guys, and if they can make it to the Big Ten, then we’re all in, for sure, because it’s fun coaching guys who can make it to Penn State or Maryland.”
Wheatley’s build — big, lengthy, quick — is what Schmitt knows attracted Big Ten schools to him, and to Venerable and Wyatt. That, and their growth potential. Each of those players, from Schmitt’s perspective, still have plenty of years ahead of developing physically.
Wyatt exemplifies that, Schmitt said. He expects Maryland will want to play him immediately.
“He’s one of the most accountable kids in our program. His skill set is extremely vast. He plays outside linebacker, we think he’s really good in coverage," Schmitt said. "He’s really good at playing the edge, rushing the passer. He’s just a versatile football player and maybe the smartest defensive player in our program. If anyone could draw it up for the other 10 on the field, it would be Kellan.”
Wyatt only decided he wanted to be a Terp in the past few months. He didn’t know much about the Big Ten recruiting-wise when he started at Spalding last year, until Maryland reached out to him midseason. At the time, he only received offers from Liberty and UMass (and would go on to garner offers from Syracuse and Buffalo, too).
Venerable had a better idea of his goals when the Big Ten came knocking. Playing as a Terp had always been his dream, but not just because of what conference Maryland played in. It would mean playing for his home state.
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But undeniably, Venerable’s noticed the shift. Wyatt is not the last Spalding player on the current roster who has the option of declaring for the Big Ten. Already, Maryland has offered twins Jalen and Jason Robertson. And there are others.
From Venerable’s perspective, why stop at the Big Ten?
“Kellan Wyatt, if he hadn’t committed so soon, we all thought he was going to be that guy to get the LSU,” Venerable said. “We thought he’d be the kid to really blow us up.”
It’s important to each player not to allow the magnitude of their commitments to get to them. Schmitt stresses “take what you do seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously,” and knows each player come from households who will ground their egos regardless.
Schmitt also emphasizes the academic aspect of his players' choices. After all, not everyone who makes it to big-time Division I schools go on to play professionally afterward.