Wake’s Whitlock the Big Man on Campus
By BJ Bennett
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Football is a game of inches. Once he finished his high school career, Nikita Whitlock, in the eyes of most, just didn't measure up.
The average size of the three defensive tackles taken in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft was 6'4'', 322 pounds. Such is the prototype for interior linemen in football these days, a gargantuan status quo that teams constantly look to fill at the college and professional levels. For many defensive tackles, the question isn't always how well, but rather how much? Anything less than 300 hundred pounds normally keeps you on the outside looking in.
Wake Forest tackle Nikita Whitlock came to Winston-Salem from Wylie, Texas at 5'10'', 230 pounds per Scout.com. Quite small for a major college edge rusher or even a linebacker, Whitlock's collegiate options were relatively limited. Despite being named the Texas Class 5A Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, the only major in-state program to offer was Southern Methodist -- and that door was later slammed shut. Whitlock opted instead for Jim Grobe and the Demon Deacons, a coach and a program known for turning under-recruited prospects into productive college players.
"At the time Wake offered, I had zero offers," Whitlock, who initially verballed to and was pursued by in-state SMU before finding his offer rescinded, explained in the November 19th game program. "It was a big deal."
After an initial redshirt season at linebacker, Whitlock debuted as a starting defensive tackle for Wake Forest in 2010. Remarkably undersized at his position, Whitlock settled in along the trenches as perhaps the smallest interior lineman in BCS Conference football. While many saw his measurables as limitations during the recruiting process, Whitlock used his unique physical traits to his advantage. Agile and athletic, he proved to be a defender who lineman struggled to contain. He relied on his low center of gravity and mobility to maintain a leverage edge against towering blockers and showed an ability to pursue runners beyond the line of scrimmage. Whitlock finished his freshman season with 44 total tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss, good for third on the team. He was awarded Freshman All-American honors by various media outlets.
This past fall Whitlock continued his progression into one of the premier linemen in the league. He ranked fourth on the team with 64 tackles and paced the defense with 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. More impressively, Whitlock was able to have a significant impact in some of the Demon Deacons' most important games. He recorded 1.5 tackles for loss each against nationally-ranked Florida State and Virginia Tech, mustered three TFL's against rival North Carolina and compiled another 1.5 TFL's and a fumble recovery against SEC foe Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl. He earned second-team All-ACC honors for his efforts. The other all-conference interior lineman averaged over 6'3'', 292 pounds.
"I like to feel like I play like I'm 10-feet tall," Whitlock continued. "I have not an ounce of intimidation inside of me."
A 3-4 nose guard the size of a baseball catcher, there isn't a player quite like Whitlock in all of college football. He's physical, strong and, unlike most at his position, has tangible versatility on the football field. That ability was on display in the team's first spring scrimmage of the year as Whitlock returned an interception of quarterback Tanner Price 87 yards for a touchdown. The practice release on the school's official athletics website says Whitlock "sprinted" 87 yards for the score.
"Nose guard just came naturally to me," he explained. "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."
The Texas-native enters this fall as the leader of the Wake Forest defense. He, linebackes Joey Ehrmann and Justin Jackson and defensive backs Merrill Noel and Kenny Okoro give the Deacons a solid foundation on which to build. Noel actually led the nation last season in passes defended with 21. Despite the talent around him, Whitlock will be the unit's tone-setter. His disruption at the point of attack serves as the catalyst for all defensive coordinator Brian Knorr hopes to do.
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody that's in our league or anybody we're going to play outside the league," Grobe added. "He's special. He's really special."
His story, Whitlock is married with a child, is a motivational one. A tale that would traditionally come with popcorn and a ticket stub. Now listed on WakeForestSports.com at a favorable 5'11'', 260 pounds, Whitlock is starting to show up on some early NFL Draft boards as a potential defensive end prospects. No matter what his future may hold, Whitlock has mentioned a passion for the armed forces and medicine in the past and is currently a health and exercise major, the influence he currently has on his teammates is a meaningful one. Whitlock is, in many ways, the quintessential Demon Deacon.
"I want my legacy to be as a hard-working, never-quit-type. 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," he concluded.
Football is a game of inches. Once he finished his high school career, Whitlock, in the eyes of most, just didn't measure up. Those who passed on him, however, didn't measure his desire, didn't measure his heart and didn't measure his passion. Now, as an All-ACC lineman, a husband and a father, it's hard to gauge his potential.