"You could see his talent, but you didn’t know if he could develop into the player he is today," Gailey said.
Wheeler always possessed formidable speed, agility and quickness. But he has taken mighty steps in becoming more intelligent about the game and stronger through watching countless hours of game film and work ethic in the weight room.
Now skilled both in pass coverage and as a fierce blitzing middle linebacker, Wheeler has become one of the nation’s top linebackers.
From playing as a true freshman to sitting out as a redshirt his second year to becoming a senior leader, Wheeler’s maturation as a player has been gratifying to Gailey.
Actually, the growth process began when Wheeler was a defensive lineman at Shaw High in Columbus.
"He’s really come a long way since having his hand on the ground as a high school senior," Gailey said. "You didn’t know if he could play up or not."
Wheeler wasn’t a heralded recruit out of high school. He showed big-play ability, recording 34 tackles for losses and five forced fumbles as a senior at Shaw High, but it was difficult to gauge his potential as a linebacker.
"He wasn’t your picture-perfect prototype, but he had that football savvy," said Charles Flowers, his former coach at Shaw and the current coach at Dougherty High in Albany. "Philip was a coach on the field and also a rebel, but in a good way, because he knew what he could do."
Flowers knew Wheeler already had the talent, being a multi-sport athlete in high school. He says Wheeler just needed special grooming from the right coach.
"He had this uncanny knack to get better," Flowers said. "I never had to worry about him as a student and player. He got his great hands from baseball and speed from running track."
As a freshman at Tech, Wheeler played mostly on special teams and sparingly on defense, with only six tackles. The next year, he was redshirted after he struggled to latch onto a new fairly complex defensive scheme.
"It was tough to miss a year," Wheeler said. "But I got more understanding of the game as a whole."
The time off made him better. In 2005, while playing outside linebacker, he tied for fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with four interceptions with four sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery and four pass breakups.
Last season, Wheeler improved even more, with 89 tackles, nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. It seemed as if outside linebacker was the ideal spot to use his speed and quickness as a pass rusher, but he was moved to middle linebacker this spring.
Since the move, Wheeler (6-2, 230) has taken his play to another level. Wheeler had seven tackles and 2.5 sacks in a 13-3 win over Clemson on Sept. 29.
"He is a beast out there," Georgia Tech safety Djay Jones said. "He is everywhere constantly making plays. Whether causing a fumble or getting an interception or a sack, you know it’s going to happen at some point. I’ve grown to expect him to do something great."
Some of the moves Wheeler uses don’t come from watching such NFL linebackers as Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher. He credits watching kung-fu movies as the place he learned how to shed blocks.
"It’s all about hand and body movement," said Wheeler, who has a team-leading 42 tackles with 4.5 sacks. "The really good karate fighters never let anyone get to them. That’s the way I want to be."
So far, Wheeler’s method has put him within the elite of college football. Scout.com ranks him as the No. 1 middle linebacker in the country. Some mock drafts have him as a possible first or early second rounder.
Wheeler says he can still improve as he looks to a future in the NFL.
"I’m never really satisfied with myself," he said. "I’m always trying to progress. That’s what I strive for. That’s the mentality that has got me farther."