By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Matt Wilhelm -- standing 6-foot-5, weighing 245 pounds and sporting a two-day growth of beard -- has become a cheerleader at Ohio State this spring.
Not an actual cheerleader, but just like the ones with the pom-poms he finds himself on the sidelines encouraging the Buckeyes.
It's about the only way he can get through spring practice and feel like he's still a part of the team as he rehabs from surgery on his right ankle.
"You're like a cheerleader," Wilhelm said. "You're giving guys inspiration and pats on the back. It's all you can do."
Wilhelm injured a chronically weak ankle in Ohio State's loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. He underwent reconstructive surgery on Jan. 15 and, after weeks of hard work, now is able to move freely although he's not yet ready to hit the field.
Wilhelm has struggled because of the chasm that exists between those who play and those who don't on any team.
"It's hard. It's hard because you lose the camaraderie," he said. "Out of sight, out of mind, is sometimes the frame of mind that some guys might take."
Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said Wilhelm has compensated for his inactivity by studying more film and getting to know his teammates better.
"He has tried to gloss over that separation from the group," Tressel said. "You kind of get separated when you're not out there with them by putting in extra time and effort in the other areas. That will pay off for him as well."
Besides feeling as if he's an outsider at practice, Wilhelm also struggles with the thought he could be losing his linebacker spot to Fred Pagac Jr. who has stepped in and had a solid spring.
Wilhelm worries that he could be moved into the background after two years as a starter.
"Obviously, Freddie's in there taking all the reps, which is great for him. And guys are getting comfortable with him when I'm just trying to get back out on the field, which is hard," Wilhelm said.
The senior from Lorain tries to contribute by attending meetings, sitting in with the coaches and watching practices from the press box with them.
"I'm sure it's difficult for him. Any competitor -- and he's a competitor -- wants to get better as a player," defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio said. "At that linebacking position, they want to be leaders. I'm sure he's struggling a little bit with that."
However, Dantonio said it's not as if Wilhelm's contributions in the past have been forgotten. After all, he won the postseason award as the Buckeyes' best linebacker after finishing third on the team in tackles with 63.
"Matt played a lot of football for us last year," Dantonio said. "He's very involved in our meetings. He's a very cerebral player. I'm hoping he hasn't lost ground. Just like everybody, there's things that players need to improve on and he's not able to work on those things right now."
Tressel said Wilhelm has remained involved with the team even though he's not in the huddle.
"He has stayed on top of things mentally," Tressel said. "He knows our offense better than some of our offensive players."
Wilhelm has tried to be philosophical about the injury and learn from what he believes will most likely be a minor impediment in his college career.
"It's just a bump in the road. You've got to overcome it," he said. "It's just like anything else in life. Beyond the game of football, problems are going to happen and you're going to have to overcome them. I've done my best to do that."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)