AUBURN, Ala. — Sidelined while Auburn’s remarkable turnaround took shape around him last season, Jeff Whitaker knew what he had to do.
He had to be the voice of reason, the wise sage. Football is a fickle game, and his teammates had to be reminded of that this spring.
“The way I viewed myself coming back was everybody had that joy ride and the crazy finishes and all that, and I was going to have to be one of the guys to help bring us back down to reality,” said Whitaker, who sat out last year after having surgery on his knee prior to the season opener. “The reality is we have to keep working and that now we are the hunted. Now people are circling us on the schedule. The reality is somebody won’t wait until the last second for us to (take) a return back or somebody is going to make sure they bat the ball down if it’s up in the last second. The reality is we’ve got a lot of room to get better and we’ve got to do it now.”
Of course, Whitaker would have given anything to experienced last season as more than a bystander. After his surgery, he rehabbed vigorously. He even set a date for his return, hoping to be ready when Auburn traveled to College Station, Texas, to take on Johnny Manziel and the Aggies in October.
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But when that week arrived, Whitaker wasn’t comfortable with where his rehab was at.
At that point, he had to come to terms with himself. With his body not recuperating as quickly as he’d like, Whitaker decided to take a medical redshirt, ending his senior season before he ever made it on the field.
“I had to talk to Coach (Gus Malzahn) and man up and tell him how I felt, like my dad and my brother taught me,” Whitaker said. “After I made the decision, everybody felt like it was the right decision.”
Whitaker readily admitted it wasn’t the “decision I wanted to hear at the time.” But he had been dealt far worse hands before.
“I knew from just growing up, life has a mean right hook,” Whitaker said. “Being out for a year, I had to pick on some things in my personal life that happened to me. I know I can overcome this. Life is two times harder.”
With his season over, Whitaker became a full-time member of what he jokingly referred to as “The Injured Clique,” which included defensive teammates Justin Garrett, Jonathan Jones and Josh Holsey.
“We used to go out and eat together and all that stuff. It was like I was helping everybody along, then somebody would go back to playing ball,” he said. “We stuck together. They're my teammates. They're my little brothers. They call me the 'old man' already. I had to do some mentoring.”
He’s taken on a similar role as the elder statesman of the defensive line.
“Jeff is a great leader. He’s a veteran of the defense, probably the oldest,” fellow senior defensive lineman Angelo Blackson said. “He’s been around since 2010, that year, and he’s one of those guys you can go to about anything. A lot of guys on this team respect him as a leader, including myself.”
In his time of working with his younger teammates, Whitaker tried to get one simple message across: Don’t complicate things. The speed may change as you progress up the ranks, but the core tenets of the game remain the same.
If they don’t heed his advice, Whitaker pointed out Rodney Garner never has an issue finding flaws.
“I feel like in our case we have the best D-line coach in the country,” Whitaker said of Garner. “At the end of the day, we just have to focus in on what he's telling us and that's going to make us so much better players. My main thing to the young guys is to take advantage of having a Coach Garner and take all the tools he's giving you and put (them) on your tool belt for the future.”
Had things worked out differently, Whitaker’s immediate future would be in an NFL training camp. Being back for one final go-round means the fifth-year senior is now in a strange position.
“After workouts, they called all the seniors on the field and I looked and I saw (Robenson) Therezie,” Whitaker recalled. “I said, ‘Really, you graduating?’ And he was like, ‘Yea, yea. I’m with you.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I recruited you to come here.’”
Therein lied what Whitaker called his biggest challenge this spring: “Getting back into my own flow.” Talking has always come naturally to him.
But after being out of the mix for a full season, he found it took time to rediscover his voice.
“When you go out there and you’re looked upon to be a leader and you haven’t been vocal for a year — but now you’re out there in the fire with your guys — (it’s) tough,” he said. “ At first when I got back out there, it was kind of like trying to get back into it and understanding it’s still my group. I’ve still got to lead them, still got to be that dominant player.”
He hasn’t regained that form yet, though, refusing to give himself an “A” this spring.
“I feel like I’m slowly, slowly creeping up to take back control of that,” Whitaker said. “I like where I’m at now at the end of the spring. Going forward to the summer, I just have to show more leadership and get the job done.”
It was a spring filled with adversity, Whitaker said, though he had no problem with that.
In his view, it’s exactly what the Tigers needed at exactly the right time.
“My granddad always says, ‘You’ve gotta have your dose of humbling pie’” Whitaker said. “I’d rather for us to get our dose of humbling pie in the spring than in the fall. I think we’ve got something to build from.”