April 16, 2014
Jeffrey Whitaker looks for a big finish as a fifth-year senior (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - For Jeff Whitaker, it seems so long ago now that he stood in the library at Warner Robins High (Ga.) High School and announced that he would play football for Auburn.
"I look around, and guys I recruited are graduating with me," Whitaker says with a laugh.
Whitaker is a fifth-year senior defensive tackle. He's seen so much, experienced so much. He has a national championship ring. At Saturday's A-Day game, he will receive his second Southeastern Conference championship ring. He's played for two head coaches, three defensive coordinators and three position coaches.
Last season, Whitaker faced the biggest challenge of his career. After undergoing knee surgery, he set a goal of returning by the time Auburn played Texas A&M in what would have been his final season. In the end, he wasn't ready. Instead of playing, he did what he could off the field as the Tigers came within seconds of a national championship. And his coaches and teammates say that was a lot.
"The thing he brings to this team from an intangible standpoint, I can't put a measure on it," defensive line coach Rodney Garner said in an interview last December. "He has unbelievable character. He's an outstanding leader."
Whitaker, whose mother died before he reached high school, has faced tougher times.
"I know just growing up that life has a mean right hook," Whitaker says. "Being out for a year, I had to pick back up some things that happened in my personal life. I know I can overcome this. Life is two times harder."
Whitaker is working now toward finishing his Auburn career in style. His knee, he says, is almost back to 100 percent. Auburn's defensive line has been plagued by injuries through spring practice, but Whitaker has been there every day.
"I have gotten a lot of reps," Whitaker says. "I think it is a good thing. It's kind of like getting my feet wet. I'm just trying to get better every day. I'm working on my fundamentals, trying to get them back in tune."
Though he didn't play, Whitaker says he will always remember the season of 2013, when the team that suffered through the misery of a 3-9 record in 2012 became a champion. Whitaker watched his fellow defensive linemen learn hard lessons along the way. He says there are still more of those lessons to learn.
"We have the best d-line coach in the country," Whitaker says. "At the end of the day, we are just going to focus in on what he's telling us. My main message to the young guys is to take advantage of having a coach like Coach Garner. It's a blessing to have the best guy."
Whitaker was one of the South's top prospects as a high school senior. He was All-American Nick Fairley's backup on the 2010 national championship team. But he played the next two seasons with a bad knee that he kept to himself until last summer, when he finally couldn't do it anymore.
"I'm still working to get back," Whitaker says. "I feel like I got my feet wet this spring. My goal is just to be a physical guy, the most physical guy out there on the field. I think the way spring has gone for me has been working toward that."
Whitaker knows what his team faces. He knows the difference between coming from out of the pack to win a championship and defending a championship. He's been there.
"The reality is we have to keep working," Whitaker says. "Now, we are the hunted. People are going to be circling us on the schedule. The reality is we have a lot of room to get better, and we have to do it now."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: