As Rob Wheelwright's skills became apparent, his family and friends hoped that he would someday play football for Ohio State. On Saturday, Wheelwright hopes to play a major role in taking down the No. 2 Buckeyes (5-0) in a Big Ten showdown. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound senior from Walnut Ridge is the leading receiver for eighth-ranked Wisconsin (4-1).

As Rob Wheelwright's skills became apparent, his family and friends hoped that he would someday play football for Ohio State.

On Saturday, Wheelwright hopes to play a major role in taking down the No. 2 Buckeyes (5-0) in a Big Ten showdown. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound senior from Walnut Ridge is the leading receiver for eighth-ranked Wisconsin (4-1).

As one might imagine, Wheelwright has looked forward to this game for some time.

"I'm pretty sure I have like 15 tickets, but don't tell anyone that," he said, laughing. "I was able to rack up a few extra tickets. I have a few family and friends coming up to support me."

Growing up in Columbus, it was only natural for Wheelwright to follow Ohio State, but his allegiances shifted when his brother Ernie IV, who also was a standout receiver at Walnut Ridge, went off to play at Minnesota.

"I liked (the Buckeyes) a little when Ted Ginn (Jr.) and Troy Smith played there," Rob Wheelwright said. "When Ernie went to school, I converted to Minnesota. But I always liked Wisconsin."

After a prolific high-school career - he had 93 receptions for 1,431 yards and 23 TDs his final two seasons - Wheelwright had offers from numerous programs, but Ohio State wasn't among them. Badgers tight end Austin Traylor, also a Walnut Ridge grad, helped lure him to Madison.

Although he missed four games because of a broken leg, Wheelwright had a breakout junior season with 32 receptions for 416 yards, including a highlight-reel, one-handed catch in a win over Southern Cal in the Holiday Bowl.

This season, Wheelwright leads the run-oriented Badgers with 18 catches for 274 yards.

"I'm just being a team player, trying to do what I need to do - catching the ball, blocking, being dependable and being consistent," he said. "My job, when the ball is thrown, is to make a play. I'm always trying to be a playmaker."

Wheelwright is close with his brother, who played at Minnesota from 2004-07. Ernie signed with the Baltimore Ravens and went on to play with Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League. He now resides in Atlanta.

"We talk about every day," Rob said. "Ernie's given me knowledge about types of defenses, coverages, players, teams. He's really been helpful throughout the whole process, especially because he's been there before and has played in big games."

Their late grandfather, Ernie Jr., was a legendary running back at Central High and went on to play seven seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants, Atlanta and New Orleans. After football, he became an actor in films and TV shows.

Walnut Ridge coach Byron Mattox sensed a sibling rivalry between the Wheelwright brothers.

"Rob had big footsteps to follow, for sure," Mattox said. "I had Rob in football, basketball and track, as well as gym class, and the thing that stood out is his competitiveness. He even wanted to dominate in volleyball and badminton games.

"Rob sets very high goals and expectations for himself, and I knew he would do stuff on the next level."

Wheelwright hopes to climb another level after he graduates next spring. He is rated as the No. 57 prospect at receiver by nfldraftscout.com.

"The NFL has been a goal of mine since I was a child," he said. "I think it's a realistic goal. Anything is possible if I continue to work on my craft and improve my route-running and separation. It's a long season yet, but my thoughts right now are focused on this weekend."

sblackledge@dispatch.com

@BlackiePreps