Oct. 9, 2013
Jeff Whitaker says he will return for his fifth season in 2014 (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - For two seasons, Auburn defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker played with pain shooting through his right knee. He told himself it was nothing serious and pushed on.
"I just kept it to myself," Whitaker said Tuesday. "I'm an ol' country boy. You rub some dirt on it and keep going."
As Auburn's season-opener neared last August, Whitaker couldn't keep going any longer. He suffered a torn meniscus and underwent surgery. Doctors discovered the problems that had plagued him since his freshman season.
"I thought I was, at some point, going to have to make a decision about football," Whitaker said. "I never really got it checked, never really told anybody, just kind of played through some things. Come to find out I needed to get some things fixed and strengthen it."
The knee issues caused weakness in Whitakers quadriceps, which hampered his ability to live up to the considerable hype that surrounded his signing and the promise he showed as freshman backup on Auburn's 2010 national championship team.
"I've been having knee swellings and this and that," Whitaker said. "I haven't been building my quad. We are just really getting my quad back right for the first time in a long time."
But it will be a long time before Whitaker plays in another Auburn football game. He has decided to take a redshirt season and return for his fifth and final season in 2014. First-year head coach Gus Malzahn made the decision public Tuesday at his weekly press conference.
"Coach Malzahn and I sat down and talked," Whitaker said. "This is the best decision for me, to get the strength back in the quad and this and that. Auburn is a great place, and I don't look at it as a sin to spend one more year here. I feel real good about it.
"I know I made the right decision in the long run. I'm a guy that believes God doesn't make mistakes and there's a reason for everything."
Whitaker will focus on rehabbing his knee and doing his part as a leader for Auburn's resurgent football team. Junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright says no Auburn player is more respected.
"Jeff has always been a high level guy, a highly respectable guy," Wright said. "He's not one of those guys who will linger or stay down about it. He's always on the sideline with us, getting us up. He's just that type of guy. He'll be the first one to congratulate you when you make a play. He's another one of those guys this season is dedicated to." -
The atmosphere around the 2013 Tigers, Whitaker says, is exciting as they head toward Saturday's homecoming game against Western Carolina. He plans to continue to be a part of it.
"It's real fun," Whitaker said. "Guys come in ready to work each and every day. I think for the most part everybody has been bonding with each other. When you have a bunch of people who believe in one thing, it's hard to beat. When you have everybody believing in one goal, it's like my grandmother used to say: `One finger can't do anything, but if you ball up those five fingers and make a fist, it can strike a mighty blow.'"
In February 2010, Whitaker, from Warner Robins, Ga., was one of the South's top defensive line prospects. He had dozens of offers, but he chose Auburn. It's a decision he says he would make again without hesitation.
"It's been more than I expected it to be," Whitaker said. "It's a great place. When I have kids, the first place they are going to look at it is Auburn. It's going to be up to them what they do, but the first place they must look is Auburn."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: