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WHEATLEY IS FRONT-RUNNER IN HEISMAN RACE

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Tyrone Wheatley is fast enough to run away from most problems. Yet he prefers to think things through.

That might explain why Wheatley is still in college, ready to start his senior year at Michigan as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.After he rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's 42-7 victory over North Carolina State in the Hall of Fame Bowl, most people figured Wheatley would pass up his senior year in favor of NFL riches. They were wrong.

"Tyrone will make up his own mind," says his mother, Louise Wheatley. "Nobody ever makes it up for him. He was very private about that. He wanted to concentrate and meditate about it."

That he decided to stay in school shouldn't have been such a surprise. Wheatley frequently does the unexpected, even if it means great sacrifice.

Take his love affair with track. When he came out of high school, Wheatley had blazing speed. He won state track and field championships and anchored a winning relay team his senior year at Dearborn Heights Robochaud.

But football at the college level required more time than high school football ever did. It also required that Wheatley bulk up, adding weight and muscle.

Although he now weighs 226 pounds, the 6-foot-1 Wheatley is still a track star. Last spring, in only his third race of the year, Wheatley won the Big Ten title in the 110-meter hurdles.

"It's been my first love ever since junior high school," Wheatley says. "Running track for me has always been fun. But I always wondered after putting on a few pounds if I'd still be competitive."

Winning the hurdles crown seems to have answered that question. Now it's time for football, and the spotlight that comes with being the preseason Heisman favorite.

"I have no regrets," Wheatley says of his decision to stay in school. "I'm just looking straight ahead."

And so is Michigan coach Gary Moeller. The Wolverines stumbled a bit last season, finishing 8-4 and out of the hunt for the national championship Moeller so desperately wants.

With Wheatley back, Moeller knows anything can happen.

"I think it speaks highly of Michigan and our program that he stayed," Moeller says. "It also speaks highly of Tyrone Wheatley. I've told him I'm proud of him and what he's done."

His big game in the Hall of Fame Bowl made Wheatley only the fifth back in Michigan history to gain more than 3,000 yards. He has 3,024, just 1,369 shy of Jamie Morris' school record.

But there are plenty of big backs with big numbers. What sets Wheatley apart is his knack for the big play.

His TD runs in Michigan's Rose Bowl victory over Washington two years ago were spectacular. Last season, he set up Michigan's first touchdown against arch-rival Ohio State with a 43-yard run.

"That's the part of Tyrone that everybody can see," Michigan quarterback Todd Collins says. "What they don't see is the leadership he provides in other ways. Tyrone is very intelligent and the other guys just like to be around him."

Wheatley has taken note of the early Heisman hype, but he puts team goals first.

"All I'm concerned with is the team aspect," Wheatley says. "The rest isn't up to me."