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'Package' Theaker back, eager to lead Wayne State

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Offensive lineman Nate Theaker (72) is sliding over to left tackle after making 22 career starts on the right side of the line.

Detroit — Wayne State offensive lineman Nate Theaker was focused on making a statement his senior year.

Theaker, an All-GLIAC first-team selection in 2014, was garnering national attention and was named to multiple Division 2 preseason All-America teams heading into the 2015 season.

After making 14 starts at right guard and eight at right tackle in 31 career games, Theaker (6-foot-6, 303 pounds) was looking forward to the challenge of sliding over to left tackle and being the leader on the line.

But then the pain started and that opportunity never came.

Theaker suffered a back injury during a workout in early June, something he said was a culmination of wear and tear from the previous three seasons and trying to squat too much weight. An MRI in late July revealed he had a herniated disc.

Shortly after, Theaker learned his senior season was put on hold after his injury required surgery and would sideline him for the year. It was the first time in Theaker’s career he missed a significant amount of time, aside from the three weeks it took for a cracked tibia to heal during one of his seasons at White Lake Lakeland High.

“I ended up working out for about a month on the herniated disc,” Theaker said. “I mean, I knew something was wrong but I was just at the point where I wanted to push myself through any kind of pain, any injury that I had because I was ready to compete. I was ready to play and have a big season.

“Luckily, I didn’t make anything worse by working out on it. But it was really difficult to handle it initially because you put all this effort and time and you’re ready for your senior year and to make a big splash and it gets taken from you.”

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Instead of dwelling on his situation, Theaker decided to look at it from a positive point of view and started developing a plan. He faced the adversity head-on and pushed himself even harder.

“You know it just comes to a point where you look at it in two ways,” Theaker said. “Is this going to be the thing that breaks me and am I just going to give up and that’s it? Or am I going to use this as motivation? Am I going to become a better person and a better player because of it?”

Theaker chose the latter. He made himself as available as possible and did whatever he could for his team, whether it was fetching his teammates water or helping out with playbooks and classes.

He also used the entire season to rehab and get back to 100 percent. Theaker said he trained smart and made sure to not do anything to aggravate his back, adding he’s as flexible, strong and athletically in shape as he’s ever been.

“I think through the injury and through some of that rehab, he even became a better football player because he had to work so much on the core strength and the middle of his body,” offensive line coach Scott Wooster said. “He’s become a little bit more explosive, a little bit more fluid. From a skill set standpoint and technique standpoint, he’s a pretty good player in terms of all that stuff. Then you add the physical attributes — big, strong and explosive, and he’s the package.”

Theaker, a graduate student who is pursuing his master’s in criminal justice, was granted a sixth-year waiver from the NCAA. He was chosen as one of the team’s five captains and named to D2Football.com’s preseason All-America first team this year.

But the best news is that Theaker gets another chance to end his college career the way he wants – giving six second of relentless effort on every single play and being the No. 1 guy up front as Wayne State seeks to string together its third straight winning season.

“My big thing is leadership and experience,” Theaker said. “I’ve been through the ringer. I’ve been through it all. We had a few guys making their first starts last year and we kind of shuffled around at a few positions, so our offensive line wasn’t as solidified as it has been in recent years.

“It’s a good thing, too, though because those guys have even more experience and we’re returning eight or nine senior offensive linemen this year, so now we have guys that have played a lot of football, have had a lot of opportunities to prove themselves. With me coming back, I’m just ready to hold that position down and provide good leadership for these guys.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Wayne State

Last season: 6-5 overall, 5-5 GLIAC

Coach: Paul Winters (13th season; 69-65 overall, 58-62 GLIAC)

Notable: Wayne State closed out the 2015 season on a strong note, winning four of its final five games to record its seventh winning season in the past eight years. The offense returns several pivotal pieces, highlighted by starting quarterback D.J. Zezula (1,786 passing yards, 14 TDs) and running back Romello Brown (1,287 rushing yards, 19 TDs). Zezula set a program record for most passing yards and touchdowns by a true freshman last season, while Brown ranked second in the league in rushing touchdowns and third in rushing yards per game (117). Also back on offense is Brown’s backfield mate Demetrius Stinson (632 rushing yards, six TDs), the team’s top three leading receivers Jamel Hicks (50 receptions, 703 yards, four TDs), Manny Mendoza (23 catches, 356 yards, four TDs) and Trent Brodbeck (13 receptions, 208 yards, two TDs), and All-GLIAC selections Robert Kelly and Tommy Richardson and preseason All-American Nate Theaker on the line. Wayne State’s defense, which gave up the third fewest yards per game in the league (356) and had the fourth-most sacks (25), will be anchored by three fifth-year senior linebackers: Anthony DeDamos (16.5 tackles for loss, third-most in league), Valorian Cunningham (team-high 4.5 sacks) and Idris Hobdy (six TFL, three sacks).

2016 schedule

Sept. 3 at Northwood, 1 p.m.

Sept. 10 at Ashland, 7 p.m.

Sept. 17 Lake Erie, 6 p.m.

Sept. 24 Tiffin, Noon

Oct. 1 Hillsdale, 6 p.m.

Oct. 8 at Findlay, Noon

Oct. 15 Walsh, Noon

Oct. 22 Saginaw Valley State, Noon

Oct. 29 at Ferris State, 1 p.m.

Nov. 5 at Ohio Dominican, Noon

Nov. 12 Grand Valley State, Noon