Marquese Wheaton and his cohorts have played with an attitude all season long, and it was never more evident than two weeks ago when they made a Heisman Trophy hopeful lose his candidacy.
Wheaton, a Mountain Pointe graduate, helped Southern Miss win the Conference USA title on Dec. 3 when they knocked off previously undefeated Houston, ranked No. 7 in the nation behind record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum at the time, in large part because the defensive backfield took away one of the nation's prolific passing attacks.
"We took it upon ourselves as cornerbacks to make sure they didn't have a big day," Wheaton said. "Corner-wise in past years here they didn't get much respect. We didn't even have (a defensive back featured in) our own school's promotional poster.
"We took it to heart and played with an attitude all year. We knew they were going to throw the ball with one of the best quarterbacks and it was a great opportunity."
Southern Miss, ranked 22nd by The Associated Press, made the most of it by knocking off the Cougars, who had hopes of crashing the BCS party as a small conference winner, to earn a bid in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.
"That'll be a nice little six- or seven-day vacation, but at the same time we have work to do," Wheaton said. "There will be a lot of gifts and parties, but we have a game to win."
And if Southern Miss (11-2) ends up beating Nevada (7-5) to close out the season, chances are Wheaton will have a hand in it as the team has come to calling him "Big Play" in his first season as a starter.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior was named All-Conference USA first-team after a breakout season as he scored three touchdowns three different ways.
There was a blocked field goal return, an interception return and fumble return to help the Eagles to one of the school's best seasons.
He also had 55 tackles with 2.5 for a loss, three interceptions, 10 passes broken up, 13 passes defended, and one fumble recovery.
"It was awesome for that kid," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said during the season about Wheaton being named the conference's defensive player of the week. "He's worked extremely hard and now you're seeing the fruit of all that labor."
The year kind of came out of nowhere simply because he wasn't healthy enough last year to make impact after transferring from Phoenix College.
He played in 10 games, but he wasn't himself and ended up having surgery because of a contusion in his leg after his junior year with Southern Miss. He rehabbed and finally showed what type of player he could be in the spring to earn the starting spot.
"It was different and I had to get acclimated to the region (of the country) and then the injury happened," Wheaton said. "It was a tough first year, but once I got healthy I finally started playing with confidence and showed everyone who I could be."
Southern Miss wasn't his first choice as he wanted to join his brother, Markus, at Oregon State where the latter is a wide receiver and Chandler High graduate.
It didn't work out because Oregon State has tri-semesters and he would have not been able to start school on time, but he ended up fitting in just fine at Southern Miss.
"I still talk to him every day and it would have been cool, but I ended up in a great situation," Marquese said. "This year couldn't have gone any better."
As far as what is next, Wheaton has a good start if the NFL doesn't show any interest. He will graduate in May with a business degree, which is a good thing since he already has a clothing line called Eloquent Club.
It's an online company that he co-owns with Mountain Pointe graduate and Arizona State accounting student Dominic Pelky.
The start up of the clothing line - which can be found at www.eloquentclub.com - was because of his family's humble beginnings.
"I went to Mountain Pointe in Ahwatukee where we didn't have the same kind of (financial) upbringing as most of the kids," he said. "We couldn't afford some of the same clothes. I was kind of out of place in that way and it's when I realized that I wanted to make my own clothes."
It has taken off and is to the point where he can step back and let everything take care of itself.
"Everything is going good," Wheaton said. "We had orders from Canada and London. Most of the hard work is done so I check in on Sundays with football taking up all my time all the other days."
He will gladly move that to Tuesdays, the day NFL players have off, should he get the chance to play on Sundays next fall.
"It is what it is," Wheaton said. "I really only had one year where (scouts) could see what I can do. I know I can play at that level, but if not I know I have things in place to go in that direction."
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