Game Program Feature: The Unlikely Lineman
Nov. 21, 2011
This articles was originally published in the Nov. 19 edition of Kickoff, the official gameday magazine of Wake Forest football.
By Brendan Bergen
Not everything is bigger in Texas. Or, at the very least, Wake Forest football fans now know there are exceptions to each reputed rule. That much is apparent when fans examine BB&T Field to observe the Demon Deacons' smallish nose guard, Nikita Whitlock, whose play is quite a bit larger than his frame and earning him an ever-growing number of fans.
Whitlock is listed at 5-foot-11, which is a bit of a stretch, and 260 pounds - also somewhat generous - but has had no problem constantly grappling with behemoths who are sometimes 60 pounds heavier (or more) than himself. His listed backup has six inches and over 20 pounds on him, but the redshirt sophomore has emerged as one of Wake Forest's leaders on a much-improved 2011 defensive unit.
"I like to feel like I play like I'm 10-feet tall," said Whitlock, who leads the Deacon defense and is 25th nationally with 12 tackles for loss in 2011. "I have not an ounce of intimidation inside of me."
His fearlessness up front has gained him plenty of credibility around the league during his second go-around.
"I definitely get a lot more respect this year," said Whitlock, a health and exercise science major. "And I don't know if it's by the coaches as much as it is the players. I've had a few comments come from a few different offensive lines, saying things like they hate going against me."
Being from Texas, where high school football is a religion, Whitlock credits some of his prowess to the gargantuan offensive lines he went up against in high school. He held up fine back then, too, accumulating a mind-boggling 94 tackles and 25 stops for loss as a senior at Wylie High School - a mid-sized Class 5A program that also produced current Wake Forest star receiver Chris Givens. After Whitlock's final season, he was voted the 5A Texas Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year.
Whitlock's superlatives and statistics should have been of the ilk to attract many Division I suitors, but concerns about his size and where to position him on the field left the defensive stalwart with remarkably few schools in search of his services. And after balking on a few Division I-AA offers, Whitlock played the waiting game.
"At the time Wake offered, I had zero offers," said Whitlock, who initially verballed to and was pursued by in-state SMU before finding his offer rescinded. "It was a big deal."
Wake Forest may have been late on the scene to propose a scholarship to Whitlock, but the coaching staff now realizes how fortunate they were to end up with a player of Whitlock's ability and makeup.
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody that's in our league or anybody we're going to play outside the league," head coach Jim Grobe said. "He's special. He's really special."
Whitlock is the unique linebacker-turned-nose guard linchpin of Wake's new 3-4 defense and has started all 21 of his collegiate games after redshirting his initial academic year in Winston-Salem. Unlike a lot of today's incoming freshmen, who loathe the possibility of an all-practice-no-glory football season, he looks back on his first year in the program as a blessing.
"I wanted that year for my GPA and I knew I had to get bigger, faster and stronger," Whitlock said. "One of the first things recruits ask me now is `how was it to redshirt?' And I tell them it was great. You can go have fun, work on your homework, you can lift weights when you want to and you're not so far away on the weekends. You can really do big things in that year and have huge gains. It helps, definitely."
What didn't aid Whitlock was that coach Grobe and his staff had no clue what to do with him once they got him onto the field. He was an undersized lineman coming out of high school and initially projected at linebacker for the college game but, with a steep learning curve and some injuries, Whitlock found himself back at his old spot spearheading the defense.
"It was a tough first year for him because it was tough academically and we were trying to play him at linebacker," Grobe said. "And that's a different world, trying to back off that line of scrimmage. I think he could do it, I think he could play right now as a linebacker, but I think he helps our team more where he's playing."
The most measurable way to show how Whitlock has given a lift to the team is by examining the raw stats. The Deacons' second-leading tackler with 46 stops in 2011, he also has three sacks often while busting through double teams. More than just a supporting cast member playing out of a natural position, Whitlock has become a star.
"Nose guard just came naturally to me," said Whitlock. "I dream about playing linebacker. I like to cover, or I like to try to cover. I don't know that I'm too good at it, but I like to try and show my athletic ability out there."
Opponents have seen enough of his athleticism from the front of Wake Forest's defensive attack, and Whitlock can tell teams are starting to take notice. But if not for Wake Forest, the loquacious sophomore may have been bound for Iraq - and still has post-college aspirations to join the armed forces.
"I tell people it was either Wake Forest or Iraq," Whitlock said. "My mom is so against it, but there's not many things in life that really catch my attention and get me going. I don't really get into too many fads or music or anything like that.
"It just hit me one day that I'd really like to be a Navy Seal. I want to go in as a medic, so health is my other passion and I felt like I could help out doubly if I was helping people on the front lines. I think about it all the time."
With or without the military, Whitlock says he wants to end up in medicine. Perhaps even working as a nurse in an hospital emergency room setting.
"I want my legacy to be as a hard-working, never-quit-type," Whitlock said. "I don't care if people mention my stats or wins and losses, it doesn't matter. I just want, if I do have a legacy, to be remembered as a blue collar player. I think that's the best type of player and the best type of person. That's what I try to be."
Whitlock's growing fan base can certainly appreciate that type of mindset and, with ambitions to serve a larger cause than himself, maybe there is something to that unofficial state slogan Texas has. Things are always bigger from the Lone Star State, they might just be deceptively disguised in a smaller package.
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