April 16, 2014
Jeff Whitaker is back after a lost 2013 season (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- They had their own little club, those injured players.
"We were the injured clique," said Jeff Whitaker. "We used to go out and eat together and all that stuff. It was like I was helping everybody along."
But somebody would get healthy and leave. And then somebody else. And somebody else. Jeff Whitaker, the Auburn defensive lineman with a bad knee, didn't leave the injured list last season. He didn’t play, took a redshirt, and is now back for his delayed senior season after a new experience.
"We stuck together. They're my teammates. They're my little brothers. They call me the 'old man' already," Whitaker said.
Jeff Whitaker, recruiting class of 2010, is a senior again this spring with players who were once his junior.
"After workouts, they called all the seniors on the field and I look and I saw Therezie, I said, ‘Really, you graduated?’ And he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I’m with you.' I was like, 'Wow, I recruited you to come here.'"
Robenson Therezie is dealing with an injury himself this spring. Broken hand. Whitaker is recovering from the bad knee. But he's looking for a good year after watching from the sidelines as Auburn made it to the BCS title game last season.
"I had never sat out a whole year, probably a game or so, but never a whole year," Whitaker said.
He says it wasn't easy dealing with 2013, debating whether to return at midseason.
"I had to talk to Coach and man up and tell him how I felt," Whitaker said.
"I knew from just growing up, life has a mean right hook. Being out for a year, I had to pick on some things in my personal life that happened to me. I know I can overcome this. Life is two times harder.
"I know I can overcome with the teammates I got, the coaches that are here to help me. It came down to me making a mature decision. This was the right decision in my mind, but it was not probably the most popular decision I wanted to hear at the time."
Injuries to others in the defensive line this spring, ironically, has Whitaker back in the mix.
"I've gotten a lot of reps. I think it is a good thing," he said. "It's kind of like getting my feet wet. This spring has been good for me, trying to get better and better each day. I'm working on my fundamentals, getting them back in tune."
Now, with coach Rodney Garner, "I feel like in our case we have the best D-line coach in the country. At the end of the day, we just have to focus in on what he's telling us and that's going to make us so much better players. My main thing to the young guys is to take advantage of having a Coach Garner, and take all the tools he's giving you, and put on your tool belt for the future. It's a blessing to have the best guy."
Whitaker, the old man, says he's "still working to get better."
"My goal is to be a physical guy…to be the most physical guy on the field. The way spring has been going, it's been working toward that. I've had some bad days. I've had some good days. But I think the way we're going, overall as a team, we needed a spring like this."
Whitaker and his bubbly personality is working their way back.
"The biggest challenge when you go out there and you’re looked upon to be a leader and you haven’t been vocal for a year," Whitaker said. "At first when I got back out there, it was kind of like trying to get back into it and understanding it’s still my group, still got to lead them, still got to be that dominant player, but at the same time be a leader.
"I wouldn’t grade myself an A. I feel like I’m slowly, slowly creeping up to take back control of that. I like where I’m at now at the end of the spring. Going forward to the summer, I just have to show more leadership and get the job done more on my part."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Following him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine