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Google surveys the recruits: Jeffrey Whitaker

In which a recruit’s name is plugged into Google and the bits of information that trickle out–guru ratings, newspaper profiles, YouTube highlights, all that stuff–are synthesized in the hopes of getting a clearer picture of the player we’ll see at Auburn next fall. Previously: Jessel Curry, Craig Sanders, Roszell Gayden, Brandon Mosley, Demetruce McNeal, Jake Holland, Shaun Kitchens, Cody Parkey, Cameron Newton, Joel Bonomolo, LaDarius Owens, Antonio Goodwin, Kenneth Carter, Ryan White, Dakota Mosley, Trovon Reed, Ryan Smith, Chad Slade, Ladarious Phillips, and Jawara White, Steven Clark, and Jonathon Mincy.

I’ve written a couple of times–and still feel–that LaDarius Owens was Auburn’s most important recruit for the class of 2010. From a momentum perspective, an in-state statement perspective, as well as a quality linebacker perspective, he was the one guy without which you might call Chizik and Co.’s efforts last cycle  something of a failure.

But from a roster perspective, from a depth chart perspective, from a “holy crap, we weren’t getting anyone else like this guy” perspective, there’s an argument to be made that the “Most Important Recruit, 2010” honor should go to Whitaker. If Dyer had gone elsewhere, that would have sucked and sucked hard, but Chizik and Co. could have found some halfway-decent running back between his class and 2011’s before Fannin departs. If Reed had stayed at home, sucked, but at least there’d still be Goodwin and Kitchens. We ended up with a bunch of offensive linemen. Even Owens, for all the face Auburn would have lost seeing him go to the Tide, wouldn’t have been as big a blow personnel-wise thanks to the other three linebackers in the class.

Whitaker, though? Bear in mind that Auburn’s depth chart is currently topped by two seniors and a junior … that the only sophomore of note is below-the-radar ’08 redshirt Derrick Lykes … that the freshman defensive tackle class of ’09 will be a complete washout unless Jamar Travis takes a huge step forward … that Whitaker’s fellow DT recruits Mike Thornton and Byran Jones went elsewhere. Without Whitaker, Auburn’s looking squarely at either 1. signing all of two defensive tackles (Travis and Kenneth Carter) in two years, only one of whom had the look of a future contributor 2. signing a subpar last-day replacement … which worked out great in 2009 with Josh Jackson, didn’t it?

In the end, Whitaker was a recruit Auburn just about had to have. Damn good thing they got him.

BASICS: You know the drill by now:

DT, 6-3, 295
Warner Robins, GA (Warner Robins HS)

HIGH SCHOOL: Ranked No. 27 among defensive linemen and the No. 9 player in Georgia by SuperPrep … Named to the PrepStar All-American team … No. 4 on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Top 50 … No. 31 on the Mobile Press Register’s Super Southeast 120 … 2010 U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant … Selected to play in the Georgia North-South All-Star game … As a senior, had 38 tackles including 11 tackles for loss and two sacks … Registered 40 tackles and 15 tackles for loss as a junior … In his sophomore season, totaled 50 tackles and one sack.

Mmmm, 26 tackles-for-loss in two years … and given that Whitaker’s primary job (at 6’3″ and now over 300 pounds) is run-stuffing and space-plugging, it’s even more impressive.

RECRUITNIK HOO-HA: Once you start really breaking it down, Auburn had five guys in the class of 2010 whose consensus guru ratings were in the very top shelf of talent, with a small-but-definitive gap between them and even the likes of Owens, Goodwin, or Mack. (And all of whom, incidentally, were ranked higher than any Auburn signee since Tray Blackmon.) Four of them were Cam Newton, Trovon Reed, Corey Lemonier, and Michael Dyer. Whitaker, as you might have guessed, is the fifth.

Rivals: four stars, grade of 5.9, No. 54 in the Rivals 100 (incidentally, only two spots behind the last player to receive a 6.0 grade), the No. 5 DT, No. 5 in the state of Georgia. Scouting:

Very wide shoulders and thick upper body with a wide powerbase and athletic-looking legs. Whitaker has massive arms and really looks the part of a fit, run-stopping machine … He is just too strong to be pushed off the ball, and he does a nice job pursuing plays laterally … Size alone makes him a candidate for playing time as a freshman, especially in short-yardage situations. If he can stay healthy and improve his ability to put pressure on the quarterback, he will become an all-league performer.

They do list an inconsistent pad-level along with the pass-rushing under “Needs Improvement.”

Scout: Four stars, the No. 11 DT, No. 106 overall, No. 7 in Georgia. Scouting:

Whitaker is a powerful defensive tackle. He is a lineman that does an excellent job of holding his blockers and freeing up his teammates. He is a space-eater and will likely demand double-teams on the next level. Making a lot of big plays is not his specialty, but he is going to make others around him better. He plays with a lot of power, but can improve his explosion off the ball and pass rushing skills.

ESPN (who’s definitely on the low end): four stars, grade of 79 (nine other members of the class got 80’s or better, including Cody Parkey), No. 17 DT. Scouting:

It can be a little tough to explain, but Whitaker is kind of like a human terminator. He is a big kid with good size for the trenches. He tends to just keep coming forward. Most times he will be disruptive, but at times you can win the battle and knock him off course. He keeps coming at you in a methodical way. He has a solid get-off, but seems just adequate in his initial quickness, which can hurt him in his ability to be disruptive … He displays good power and can almost just get into a blocker and walk him into the backfield … He can be good with his hands, but you would like to see him be more active with them and create more separation. He plays with good pad level, but does need to watch it. He has a good motor and solid speed. As a pass-rusher, he is a pocket crusher. He is best at bulling his way back and being disruptive. He can run into sacks when the quarterback is forced to step up, but he is at best being the guy to flush the quarterback … With some consistency in some areas, he can be a real tough run-defender and disruptive as a pass-rusher.

So, yeah, they weren’t quite as impressed … but who cares what you think, ESPN, unless we’re talking about one of the many players you rank higher than the other two services.

To be perfectly honest, though, Whitaker’s offer sheet lined up more with the ESPN evaluation: Georgia offered and made a big, big push for Whitaker, but the other major SEC programs apparently didn’t bother; the other highlights are Miami, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, North Carolina, and, weirdly, Cal. It’s not bad, but Whitaker wasn’t an early commitment, and it doesn’t quite jibe with Rivals’ top-60 assessment. Do I think it means anything? No. But it’s worth noting.

LINKS OF POTENTIAL INTEREST: Interesting (and maybe slightly more honest) clip here, the scouting film from one particular Whitaker performance:

As expected: no huge plays, but lots of shoving the offensive linemen around like playthings. You can also see something the ESPN write-up mentioned: Warner Robins has their defensive linemen playing way off the line for some reason. What this might have meant for his stats or occasional difficulties in pass rush, I have no idea. But it’s worth pointing out.

There’s more THRILLING defensive tackle highlights if you want ’em: some on YouTube, some at the AUfficial site.

Part of the disconnect between Rivals’ ranking and ESPN’s–and it’s one we’ve seen before–is that Whitaker attended the Rivals-affiliated U.S. Army game instead of the ESPN-affiliated Under Armour game. And while attending, pretty well blew up. Rivals named him one of the East stars of the week:

Whitaker is a plugger who plays with great leverage, has tremendous strength off the snap and not only takes up blockers but can beat double teams. He’s built like a brick, plays with a pad level that frustrates opponents and his anticipation and ability to read the play is impressive. He had a tackle for a loss in the game itself and you can pretty much count on him for one of those a game at the next level if he continues to develop.

His coach at the game:

Quarles said it was an easy decision to name Whitaker and [five-star Sharif] Floyd the starters at defensive tackle for Saturday’s game.

“I think they could go play in that [college football national championship] game tonight for either one of those teams and have some success,” Quarles added.

Whitaker also made Rivals’ honorable mention for “Strongest” and “Stock Rising” at the game, so, yeah, I’d say he had a good week.

You can watch Whitaker sign his LOI here, along with Warner Robins’ two other scholarship athletes. Signing Day newspaper story with the requisite heartwarming details and coachquotes is hyah:

“It (Auburn) just felt comfortable,” he said.

Which is something – comfort that is – he knows a little bit about. A self-described “fat boy” originally from Macon – but Warner Robins has adopted him, he added – Whitaker said he can remember some hard times in his life. His mom he said passed away about five and a half years ago but even before that, he said he could remember coming to school with holes in his shoes. “I’d look in my closet and there was like maybe four outfits,” he said. “(Still) we stayed together. That’s one of the things that make it so special.”

Whitaker, Warner Robins girl’s basketball Head Coach Tom Mobley described, is about as well grounded a student athlete you’ll find.

“He’s a teacher’s pet,” Mobley said. “(But) most guys they get all this (the attention) and it kind of puffs them up. Not him.”

That’s not just fluff; Whitaker’s commitment a few days prior was decidedly low-key:

Jeff Whitaker didn’t play any games with caps or T-shirts. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle simply strolled into the media center at Warner Robins High School on Monday wearing a blue Auburn University warm-up suit with his father and step-mother following close behind in bright-orange-and-blue Auburn t-shirts.

His announcement moments later was almost anticlimactic. He was chose the Tigers over Miami and Georgia. He’ll sign on national signing day.

“I just wanted to show how much pride I had about what I was doing,” said Whitaker, who is ranked No. 4 in the AJC Top 50 rankings. “I’m just not the type to do the cap thing. I don’t want to play with people’s emotions.”

More coachquotes, this time from the ghost of the Gold Mine:

”He knows where he wants to go and what he needs to do to get there,” Way says. ”When I was 17, I didn’t know who I was, where I was going or what I needed to do to get there” …

”He’s a tremendous leader and just a super guy,” Way said. ”He’s probably taught me more than I’ve taught him. No matter how good a player he is, he’ll always be a better person. He’s just a great kid, and very, very humble.”

Oh, yeah. He can play football.

”He’s a big kid. He’s got very good quickness. He understands how to play the game. He’s pretty hard to block,” Way said. ”He’s just scratched his potential.”

Let’s hope so. A few more quickie links you might be interested in: Whitaker spoke to the local rag about a big comeback upset for Warner-Robins, I respond to his commitment by pointing out that getting a player that good out of Georgia and away from the Dawgs is a big statement (here’s the Dawg response, FWIW), and both Josh Bynes and Antoine Carter said Whitaker stood out in summer workouts.

Also there’s Whitaker’s first interview as an Auburn Tiger, from, like, a week ago. He sounds humble as ever. You should probably read that, too, if you’ve forgotten it already.

UPDATE: Not sure how this didn’t immediately show up in Google, but a little bit of searching at the Macon Telegraph site yielded this, the most in-depth look at Whitaker’s family situation and development I found. A sampling:

Appling Middle School coach Danny Grube first remembers Whitaker coming up to him at lunch where the coach sold ice cream to help out the school.

“He would come up to me, and I would ask, ‘How many ice creams do you want?,’ ” Grube said. “He’d say, ‘Five.’ ”

Eventually, Grube asked Whitaker why he didn’t play sports. Whitaker said, “No coaches ever asked me to.”

So Grube and Randy Brown put the fullcourt press on Whitaker and finally got the then 6-1, 230-pounder to play football in the eighth grade.

Whitaker, who knew the game from playing on the streets of Macon as a child, had a plan: He would go out and play two weeks and quit. He didn’t think he’d like the tackle game.

“I would play sorry and leave,” Whitaker said. “But I got out there, and there was no way I could lag around. I fell in love with it.”

Whitaker discovered that football offered another avenue to cope with his mother’s death. He used the game as an outlet for his aggression.

“I think it helped me a lot,” Whitaker said. “Football is a physical game, and it helped me take out a lot of anger that I had built up. It still helps me do that.”

Randy Brown and Grube talked Whitaker into wrestling and competing in track and field. The camaraderie from sports also helped heal his wounds, and he found success. He won a county championship in wrestling and threw the shot put in track.

“He was raw at first, but you could tell he would eventually be a standout,” Grube said. “He was a natural.”

WHAT CONCLUSIONS WE CAN DRAW, IF ANY: Aside from maybe more agility at quarterback and definitely more depth across the entirety of the defense, Auburn needed nothing more last season than more run-stuffing beef in the middle of the defensive line. Jake Ricks was serviceable, sure. Mike Blanc was excellent in pass defense, sure. But they also got blown off the ball far, far too often for my liking. And of course Nick Fairley wasn’t quite ready. And Zach Clayton was hurt. And we still don’t know if Derrick Lykes is any good.

So now comes Whitaker, who by virtually everyone’s account is 300 pounds of pure, unadulterated power-football space-eating run-blockade. Glove, meet fit. Maybe–maybe, though I doubt it–the lack of offers and his struggles in pass rush mean he doesn’t have that absolute highest-end upside. But with Ricks, Blanc, and Clayton all gone by next year, the guess–actually, the safe bet–is that he starts as a true sophomore, and under Tracy Rocker, and with his humility and work ethic, he only gets better from there. I’ll give Gene Chizik the final word:

“He’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

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