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Chiefs defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton finally feels like he belongs

The third-year player feels like he’s finally made the transition from Division II to the NFL.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee Titans Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Tershawn “Turk” Wharton hasn’t yet set the NFL world on fire. Playing in a reserve role — appearing in just under half of the team’s defensive snaps during his first two seasons — he’s collected 56 tackles (27 solo, four for loss) to go along with four sacks, six quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and a pass defensed.

But then again, expectations weren’t high for Wharton, whom Kansas City signed as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri University Science & Technology — a Division II school in Rolla — following the 2020 NFL Draft.

Still, he (and fellow rookie Mike Danna) impressed Chiefs coaches a great deal during the virtual offseason forced by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Those two guys — talking about Turk and Mike — listen, for guys that have not been in the NFL very long, they sure operate like true pros,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo early that September. “They learned it somewhere along the way. We noticed it in those Zoom meetings. I remember [defensive line] coach [Brendan] Daly talking about both of those guys specifically — how much he was looking forward to working with them, because in these meetings like [we’re] doing right now, he was thoroughly impressed. Those two guys have just continually impressed the coaches.”

NFL: DEC 26 Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now entering his third season, Wharton now has a new position coach — longtime NFL defensive line coach Joe Cullen — who is encouraging him to go all-out.

“I think Coach Cullen wants me to use my speed, just letting me get upfield,” Wharton told reporters after Wednesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. “He’s watching [fellow defensive tackle] Chris [Jones] a lot. So he wants us to go. He’s trying to make me play faster — be more of a read-and-react [player].”

Wharton said that he’s also improved his pass-rushing ability because of advice he got from Jones and defensive end Frank Clark — both of whom Wharton identified as taking a strong leadership role within the defensive unit this offseason.

“I worked a lot on getting my hands faster, boxing — things of that nature — just to get them up,” he said. “Talking to Chris and Frank, they were telling me some things they do in the offseason. That was one thing that Chris told me that he did — and you know, Chris has got good hands. So I just did that — and stuck to it.”

That was one thing Wharton needed to do better — as we noted in our film review during November of his rookie season.

Because of his lack of length, Wharton will need to continue to develop his hands to sustain this success. With shorter arms and less mass — but superior quickness — he must keep his chest clean as often as possible. As long as he is able to do so, his quickness and explosive ability is going to be a problem for offensive linemen.

And it seems to be working. During training camp a year ago, Wharton sometimes had trouble against offensive guard Trey Smith.

But on Tuesday — almost exactly a year later — it was a different story.

Wharton said that this was just another battle in the war the two of them had been waging.

“That’s been something since his rookie year,” he explained with a smile. “In the locker room, we talk. ’Yeah, you got me today — but tomorrow, we’re coming back at it.’ It’s a friendly competition, but we know we’re going to get each other better every day.”

In fact, Wharton thinks that the team’s now-strong interior offensive line group — guard Joe Thuney, center Creed Humphrey and Smith — is helping the whole defensive interior to be better.

“I think they know their side,” he declared. “Thuney, Trey and Creed? Those guys give you good looks, you know — some top guys in the league. They’re going to go all-out every day. You know they’re not coming in just to get through practice. They come in and work.”

Going from Division II to the NFL is never an easy transition. But Wharton believes that he’s pulled his weight — and along the way, made strides.

“I think I’m definitely better,” he said. “Coming in from a small school, you know, these guys were a little bit more polished than me. But now I feel like I belong. Every day, I’m working to get better.”