Jeff Whitaker’s season ended before it ever began.
Auburn’s senior defensive tackle will redshirt this year due to a right knee injury he suffered prior to the season opener versus Washington State, head coach Gus Malzahn announced Tuesday. The decision to sit out for the remainder of the season was made earlier this week.
While disappointed for the Warner Robins native, Malzahn pointed out that Whitaker hasn’t been able to operate at full health in quite some time.
“He's kind of been playing banged up for the last year or so, anyway,” he said. “I think it'll just be good for him to be healthy.”
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Malzahn hopes having 2013 off will pay dividends for Whitaker when next season rolls around.
“That's our goal — to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season,” he said.
Fellow defensive tackle Gabe Wright was saddened by the news, having seen how much work Whitaker had put in while attempting to return this season.
“Every day, Tuesday and Thursday while we're doing weights, he's doing something a little bit individualized working on his knee,” Wright said. “Jeff has always been a high level guy, a high respectable guy.”
To Whitaker’s credit, Wright said his elder teammate never let the injury darken his mood.
“He's not one of those guys who will linger or stay down about it,” Wright said. “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.”
Whitaker would also be one of the first to correct other defensive linemen when he noticed them making mistakes during games. At times, Wright recalled, the senior was even more vocal than the coaching staff when it came to imparting instructions.
“Sometimes we have to say, ‘Coach Whitaker, can we listen to Coach Garner a little bit?’” Wright said. “That’s just what you’re going to get from Jeff whether he’s playing or not playing. He definitely brings a third coach to the (table).”
Wright was able to find one positive amidst the bad news of Whitaker’s lost season. Selfishly, it means he’ll get to be a senior next year alongside the player who recruited him to Auburn in the first place.
“We will lose some seniors this year, but having Jeff coming back will be pretty awesome, too,” Wright said. “Jeff has been working his butt off. I know he can’t wait to get back. All we can do is just play for him this year.”
Justin Garrett ‘week-to-week’
Whitaker’s injury wasn’t the only one Malzahn touched on during his opening statement Tuesday.
Linebacker Justin Garrett, who has a cracked bone in his right foot, has also been contemplating taking a redshirt this year. However, Malzahn said the junior is still planning to play this season, deeming his status “week-to-week.”
His availability for Saturday’s game against Western Carolina has already been decided, as Malzahn said Garrett won’t suit up.
“We're just going to see how he reacts,” Malzahn said. “He wants to play. We'll just see how everything happens with that.”
If his condition does not improve, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Sunday that Garrett would likely have surgery and then apply for a redshirt.
Malzahn also said that Cassanova McKinzy would participate in practice for the second straight session. After suffering what Johnson called a “neck stinger” in last Saturday’s game versus Ole Miss, the sophomore linebacker had to be carted off the field. It wasn’t serious enough to keep him out of Sunday’s no-pads practice, though.
C.J. Uzomah is also working his way back into form after seeing limited action in the victory over the Rebels.
“He’s just trying to get back to full-speed,” Malzahn said of the junior tight end. “He was banged up last week and I think he played one play and he was about half-speed. We just said, ‘Let’s give him some rest.’ We’ll need him (to be) 100 percent and he’ll be there pretty quick.”
Jeremy Johnson has yet to appear in a game this season. But Malzahn refused to say whether a redshirt was forthcoming for the true freshman quarterback. “I know it’s getting to a point now where you got to do what’s best for him and what’s best for your team,” Malzahn said, “but he’s still getting a lot of reps in practice and he’s improving.” Johnathan Ford moved from running back to cornerback in fall camp to add depth to the secondary following Jonathan Jones off-field injury. At the time, Malzahn said the true freshman would likely return to running back once Jones recovered. Judging by Malzahn’s comments, Ford will have to a while longer before he rejoins the Tigers’ offense. “We’ll talk after the season where he’s at,” Malzahn said. “But he’s making progress. He’s got a great attitude. He’s a very good athlete and we think he’s going to be an outstanding player.”