Jeff Whitaker is trying to make a strong statement in his return to Auburn's defensive line
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — There is plenty of age and experience on Auburn's defensive line and nobody, smiles Jeff Whitaker, has more of it than...well, Jeff Whitaker.
"They keep calling me the old guy," he says in mock protest.
It's true. The defensive tackle played all 14 games his freshman year in 2010, started all 13 games in 2011, started six of nine games in 2012 in a season slowed by injury and sat out last season with a bum knee.
There's no quit in Jeff Whitaker. He's back for 2013 and ready to go.
"I feel like old Jeffrey. I finally feel like old Jeff," he said.
Old Jeffrey? Old Jeff? Whitaker walked into that one.
"He's the old man on the defense," acknowledged fellow defensive lineman Angelo Blackson.
He kids because he cares.
"He's one of those guys who is a great leader," Blackson said. "It's great to have him another year. I came in after him, and leaving with him, and it's a blessing."
"There are," said Whitaker, "a lot of characters in that D-line room. That's why there's never a dull moment."
Never a dull moment. That's Jeff Whitaker, who is always fast with that smile or handshake or quick hug.
Coach Gus Malzahn has been happy to welcome him back.
"It’s very important from the standpoint you have to have leaders. He was a leader last year too," Malzahn said. "He got hurt, didn’t get to play… But he’s a guy that all of his teammates respect, he’s guy that all the coaches trust and respect and you have to have strong leaders."
Whitaker appreciates such talk and thinks back to the fact he hasn't played in a football game, by his own estimation, in "like two years."
Now, "I'm excited. I can't explain to you how I feel. I'm feeling real good."
Whitaker can join a defensive line that rotated freely last season. This year, are there a couple of voids left by the departure of starters: Dee Ford is in the NFL as a first-round pick; Nosa Eguae is trying to land a spot with Atlanta.
Whitaker is happy to join the still-deep line.
"I think we can be something special," Whitaker said.
There's a lot to choose from. Counting walk-ons, there are 19 defensive linemen on the roster, including a bunch of junior and seniors who play.
"The rotation is good, and I think its competition, as well," Whitaker said. "It brings out the competitive nature. You root big for everybody, but you see somebody do something good, you want to come in there and do the same thing. And then you feed off of that. If someone in there is playing good ball, it's like tag team. I'm a big wrestling fan. It's like tapping in, tapping out. So it's going to be a good deal."
Whitaker said his goals are not unlike the ones he had when he last played.
"Be relentless and be a physical presence. I feel like that, by accomplishing my goal, it will only make the team better. It will only make the D-line better," he said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine