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Epic bench press performance helps Jeff Whitaker take center stage at pro day

AUBURN, Ala. — The story of Jeff Whitaker's career at Auburn was defined by injuries at nearly every turn. He missed three games in 2012. In 2013, he sat out the entire season after having surgery on his right knee prior to the opener. And in his fifth and final season on the Plains last fall, a back injury sidelined him for the Tigers' last four contests.

At Auburn's Pro Day Tuesday, Whitaker put all that behind him to author an unforgettable performance, as the Macon native did an eye-popping 41 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.

Almost immediately, Whitaker felt like something special could be in store.

"When I got the first three I thought, 'All right, this is going to be interesting,'" he said. "When I got the first three and it didn't feel like it had hit one yet, I was like, 'OK, we might could be down here for a minute.' They said I was down there for 45 seconds, so that's pretty long."

It was an effort in line with his expectations, though Whitaker admitted he exceeded them a bit.

"I just wanted to do the most ever, especially for Auburn. I thought it was 35. Somebody told me it was 38," he said. "So I don't know. I thought it was like 35."

At one point, he lost count of his reps. But Whitaker was quickly got up to speed when the teammates surrounding him in Auburn's weight room exploded.

"Everybody screamed, '40!' I was like, 'Whoa," he said, which took a moment to sink in. " ... I'm glad I didn't drop the bar. I just held it for about three seconds, and that three seconds felt like 20. And I managed to get one more, so that was great."

Whitaker's number would have been the best of any player at this year's NFL combine; Northwestern State's Deion Simon did 35 reps last month. Prior to Tuesday, Whitaker said the most reps he could remember doing at one time was "33, 34."

And that, according to fellow defensive lineman Gabe Wright, couldn't be more untrue.

"Jeff's lying. I worked out with Jeff for three or four years," said Wright, a Carver alum. "Jeff will get to about 50 on a great day. I've seen him get 50 before. It's amazing what he's done bouncing back from injuries. Just imagine if he's able to stay healthy like he was today. Just imagine the numbers he could put forth."

Though he wasn't able to showcase that ability on a regular basis as a Tiger, Gus Malzahn said Whitaker won't be forgotten.

"He's one of our leaders. He's been one of our leaders since he's been here," Auburn's coach said. "He's kind of like the grandfather to all of our players. He's got a lot of wisdom, he's been an extension of the coaches since he's been here, and he'll definitely be missed."

Jermaine Whitehead felt the same way. After having to watch his teammate battle injuries so often, the safety was grateful Whitaker got his moment in the sun Tuesday.

"The bench has been his thing since I've known him, and to see him throw up that 40, it's amazing," Whitehead said. "Seeing him be the highlight of the day in that area, I was definitely rooting for him. He's one of my best friends on the team. It was crazy, real crazy."

But Whitaker refused to view Tuesday ruefully. He didn't want people saying it represented "what could have been" with his college career if injuries hadn't derailed him time and again.

All Tuesday did was reinforce what he already thought about himself.

"I knew what I could do. I showed it. I got in football shape," he said. "It's more, 'Let's work. ... I (can) train for football, football, football now, which I love to do. It was just tremendous, coming back, being at Auburn and looking up at the banners and seeing some of the championships that I was part of and things of that nature."

Now, he hopes an NFL team takes a flyer on him. Invoking the names of aging veteran Vince Wilfork and recently retired Casey Hampton, Whitaker believes he's capable of being part of a youthful revolution at defensive tackle.

"That position eight years ago was strong as its ever been," he said. "Now it's kind of like, 'OK, we've got to look for that next group of talent to come in.' I really feel 100 percent I'm part of that (group) they're looking for."

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