Dec. 23, 2013
Jeff Whitaker says he is not surprised by emergence of “second-chance players” in Auburn’s championship run (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – Defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker hasn’t played a snap this season, and he won’t play when Auburn takes on Florida State in the BCS Championship Game. But the impact he has had on his teammates and even his coaches has been a driving force in this season of dreams.
Before defensive line coach Rodney Garner arrived at Auburn last December to join first-year head coach Gus Malzahn’s staff, he knew Whitaker well. As a Georgia assistant, he had recruited him hard out of Warner Robins, only to see him choose Auburn in February of 2010.
At Auburn, Garner found a more mature version of the young man he’d recruited. Whitaker, he quickly learned, was respected by his teammates as much for the way he lived his life as for the way he played the game.
“A guy like him, you just can’t help but be a fan and pull for him,” Garner says. “To me, he exemplifies what a true Auburn man is all about.”
Whitaker, who underwent knee surgery last August, was instrumental in the difficult early days when Auburn’s defensive linemen wondered about their new coach with the hard-nosed ways and he wondered about them.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know if some guys in my room would have survived me or I would have survived them if it wasn’t for Jeff and his leadership,” Garner says. “The thing he brings to this team from an intangible standpoint, I can’t put a measure on it. He has unbelievable character. He’s an outstanding leader.”
A mountain of a man with uncanny athleticism even in high school, Whitaker arrived at Auburn as one of the South’s top defensive line prospects. He was a contributor on a national championship team as a freshman and a starter the next two seasons. The stardom predicted for him didn’t materialize, but even then, he was a man to whom his teammates looked in times of trouble, who coaches leaned on.
“He means what he says and says what he means,” Garner says. “Kids respect him. The coaches respect him. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
When running back Corey Grant wondered in 2012 why he wasn’t getting an opportunity to run, why the praise of the spring had turned into the disappointment of fall, he turned to Whitaker.
“It was him and my parents,” Grant says. “They helped me through it. He’s helped a lot of players. That’s the kind of person he is. Everybody respects him.”
As Whitaker fought through two tough seasons, few knew that his right knee was a source of near constant pain. Finally, in preseason camp last August, he knew it was time to do something about it.
“It was when my knee started locking up,” Whitaker says. “Two years prior, it would always flare up. I wouldn’t ever overemphasize it. It got to the point where, when it locked up on me in camp, I took a deep breath and said ‘I’m going to have to on and talk to them.’”
It turned out Whitaker had a torn meniscus and “three or four loose bodies” floating in his knee. The explosiveness that had brought college coaches streaming to Warner Robbins, Ga., had been diminished.
“As the reps go on, you don’t recover as well,” Whitaker says. “It affected my offseason training. Because of my knee, there was some stuff I couldn’t do.”
Doctors marveled that he’d played as well as he had and recommended surgery. Whitaker agreed, vowing he would work and be back on the field before season’s end.
“We were shooting for Texas A&M,” Whitaker says. “When we got to that point, it was still going to be like two weeks before I could really go. We decided it was best just to shut it down. I worked and dedicated myself, and I wanted to have a full season. Looking at it now, it’s great. I understand the leadership I’m going to have to provide and how good this team can continue to be.”
For Whitaker, Auburn’s run to a 12-1 record and the Southeastern Conference championship has been as meaningful as if he’d been on the field. He’s been a teammate, a coach of sorts and a mentor. He’s seen friends who had been abandoned, deemed not good enough to play on a team that went 3-9, become major contributors on a team that will play for the biggest prize in the game.
Whitaker knows about real trouble, about despair far deeper than the disappointment of losing a football game. His mother died when he was 12, and he was raised by his aunt. From both of them, he learned lessons of honesty, hard work, reliability and accountability.
When Whitaker met with Malzahn for the first time, those things were on display.
“He was trying to weed out everything that was bad and anybody that was not on board,” Whitaker says. “My comment to him was that, in that locker room, you have a bunch of fighters, a bunch of second-chance individuals. They know how to fight. I told him that 3-9 was not going to be the problem as far as getting the group back. We were a tight group, but the issue was trust.”
That soon changed, and Whitaker says that is when the championship team of 2013 began to grow.
“When Coach Malzahn instilled that trust, man it changed,” Whitaker says. “When you trust everything somebody is doing, it changes everything. Everybody went with it. I just feel like this team is remarkable in its own unique way. There are a bunch of fighters and a bunch of second-chance guys everybody gave up on. Now, their light is shining.”
That Grant, Robenson Therezie, Ryan White, Ryan Smith, LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders, among others, have blossomed comes as no surprise to Whitaker. He knew they had what it took all long.
“It’s not amazing to me they are doing all this,” Whitaker says. “We, as a group, knew we could play ball. We knew the people we had in the locker room and we knew who could play. We knew Chris Davis was the best punt returner when we got here. That was no secret. They just finally put him out there this year, and now the world sees it.”
Those decisions, Whitaker says, were not the only reasons for loss of trust, but they were significant.
“Oh, big-time,” Whitaker says. “I’m not trying to throw anybody under the bus, but the truth is the truth. You don’t go from 3-9 to 12-1 on lucky breaks. There was a lot that was going on that wasn’t right. There’s a lot going on now that is right. I just say hats off to Coach Malzahn and his whole crew.”
Whitaker knows what it’s like to celebrate a national championship. It was, he says, a feeling that will be with him always. He’ll always remember, too, watching Davis run 109 yards with a missed field goal to beat Alabama and send the 2013 Tigers on to the SEC Championship Game.
“I had turned around to get some water, and when I turned back around he was running by himself,” Whitaker says. “I was like ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ Everybody was like crying and running onto the field, so I ran out there, too.”
Whitaker firmly believes the Tigers of 2013 have what it takes to celebrate another national championship. Their approach, he says, is no different than it has been all season. They’ve believed 13 times that they could win. And 12 times they’ve been right.
“It’s just the way they approach things,” Whitaker says. “The reason I have so much confidence in them is there was never anything too big. When Chris ran 109 yards, two hours after the game he was in his room playing with his little boy.”
When the last game is over, Whitaker will turn his attention toward preparing for the senior season that will come a year later than he expected. Already, he’s been working diligently with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell to make sure he’s ready. At 6-foot-4 and 313 pounds, he’s already in playing shape.
“It’s going to be the best year of my life,” Whitaker says. “I already know it with the work we are doing. Coach Russell is going to kill us, but in a good way because he’s the best strength coach in the world. I think it’s going to be the best year of my career so far.”
Garner believes that, too. He’s already seen Whitaker’s leadership. He’s eager to see him play without a bad knee holding him back.
“I was excited about the opportunity to coach him this year, but he got injured,” Garner says. “I was excited to know he hadn’t been redshirted so we would have a chance to get him back and have him healthy and to, hopefully, let him go out on top.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: