Gold Rush: Man on the Move
Sept. 17, 2012
This article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Gold Rush.
By Jay Reddick, Gold Rush
Giving life. Shaping life. Saving life. That's the legacy and the ambition of Nikita Whitlock's existence so far.
That, and some pretty good football, too.
The junior nose guard, named to the ACC's preseason all-conference team in July, has shown maturity far beyond his 21 years.
One thing that has matured Whitlock in a hurry is his family: he's married with a 2-year-old son. As challenging as time management can be for a student-athlete, Whitlock takes it to another level.
"Most people in my situation have football and studying," Whitlock said. "Both basically take half of your time. So I'm trying to fit three things into something that's supposed to only be cut in half. I love my wife and son, and I love football, so I'm trying to give time to both."
How successful is he at walking this tightrope? On the football side of things, it's easy to quantify. He finished fourth on the team in 2011 with 64 tackles, earned second-team All-ACC mention and was named a sophomore All-American by College Football News.
And the family? Ask his teammates.
"Nikita is a great guy," said quarterback Tanner Price. "He's got great character, and he's a great father. I admire him for that -- for how much he loves his family."
So with all the talk of balancing football and family, you might notice one part of the equation that's missing: sleep. Whitlock rests when he can but admits sometimes it can be a test.
"My son turned 2 in May, and he is wide open," Whitlock said. "The `terrible twos' are real."
Coach Jim Grobe is a little more direct -- and forgiving -- in his discussion of Whitlock's resting habits.
"There were some days last year we'd see him at breakfast, and he'd look like a direct hit," Grobe said. "He'd have his long nights with the baby crying, but that matures you. It's great for you. Nothing develops you like having to focus on somebody else and not yourself."
Grobe and his wife, Holly, were married while Grobe was coaching at the University of Virginia, and their oldest son, Matt, was born during that time period as well. So Grobe knows what he's talking about when it comes to that delicate balance. Whitlock said that Grobe's counsel and understanding of the situation have been invaluable.
Grobe shared another trait with Whitlock as a young man: Both were undersized linemen who pushed themselves hard enough to play in the ACC. Whitlock is listed at 5-foot-11, but he admits his actual height is 5-9 3/4, and he almost looks Grobe in the eye. The conventional wisdom is that linemen should be taller, but Whitlock is anything but conventional.
"I feel like being a little shorter actually helps me with leverage and position, and being a smaller target for hands to put on," Whitlock said. "I try to turn my negatives into positives."
Whitlock's size prompts him to play nose guard a little bit differently. Instead of seeing him push back the offensive line pile, you're just about as likely to see Whitlock chasing the play from sideline to sideline, or hopefully getting behind the line of scrimmage for a big hit. It has worked so far; he had 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2011, both team bests.
His nose for the ball (and his position choice) date back to his pre-Wake Forest days. He wanted to be a linebacker as a youngster, but circumstance forced him to join the down linemen.
"I moved to nose guard in middle school," Whitlock said. "When I moved there, I didn't know I was supposed to be the sacrificial lamb, and so I didn't play like it. I was a nose guard who goes after running backs and quarterbacks more. I tried to play linebacker, but the coaches said, `You're a nose guard. You can play varsity if you're a nose guard, and we're going to design the defense around how you play,' and it was great."
The Deacons' defense hasn't been designed around Whitlock, but the switch to a 3-4 formation along the front line helped keep him comfortable and has given him the best situation in which to thrive.
"The 3-4 is probably the best thing that has happened to me in college other than marrying my wife," Whitlock said. "I was really uncomfortable in the 4-3. In the 3-4, I have more room; I can run. The 3-4 we run, you can hit gaps, and it really helped how they utilize me."
So the total package for Whitlock is coming together. He's got the ability, he's got the maturity, he's got the patience. Now he just has to pass his lessons on to his backups, the future Deacons stars -- the next generation, if you will.
Whitlock embraces this task. You will often hear players refer to themselves as leaders, but you don't hear the words "teacher" and "coach" batted around, especially not for non-seniors. But Whitlock is already thinking that way.
"People look to me for learning more, teaching more," Whitlock said. "The older you get, the more of a coach you become, the less of a player. You have to prove yourself. I love to coach."
Grobe's not stopping him from embracing his leadership qualities, either.
"I think the guy's really respected," Grobe said. "He's got major responsibilities beyond football, the guys respect what he does on the field and beyond football."
You have to respect what Whitlock has planned for life after football -- he wants to join the Navy SEALs, become a medic and serve his country. That's a decision he made long ago -- his mother was in the U.S. Army, and if he hadn't gotten the chance to play Division I-A football, he would probably be stationed overseas right now.
"I've always wanted to be in the health industry, and I feel like it takes more to save a man's life in battle than to take it," Whitlock said. "I'd love to serve our country and save our men."
He boils down his decision of what to do after high school this way: Wake Forest or Iraq. He was the defensive player of the year in Texas' top division, but he didn't receive any scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools until WFU came along late in the process. He considered a I-AA offer from Northwest Louisiana but says now that without the I-A interest, he was expecting to move on with his military life.
The Deacons have thrived in the past with players who, for whatever reason, didn't draw major interest, and in Whitlock, Grobe saw another possible diamond in the rough.
"When we cut the film on, he was making plays all over the field like he does now," Grobe said. "It was a community decision for the coaching staff -- we decided to take a chance. We've done that with some other guys with less interest, guys like Kevin Marion or Josh Harris who other teams were afraid of after they got hurt. When we looked at Nikita, we thought, `This guy is too good to pass up, no matter how big he is.'"
And now, he's the linchpin of the defense, a unit with high expectations to carry this team to the next level. After a 6-7 campaign, not many people are expecting Wake Forest to rise all the way to the upper echelon of the ACC, but some have said that the team could play spoiler against the elite Florida States of the world. Whitlock's hopes are higher.
"I'm always the underdog," Whitlock said. "Being a spoiler is hard, but if we have to spoil the conference to show the world we're good, that's what we'll do."
Nikita Whitlock Profile