Whitaker Ready To Step Up For Tigers

Jeffrey Whitaker is expected to take on a huge load for the Auburn defense this fall.

Auburn, Ala.—With five defensive linemen gone from Auburn's 2010 BCS National Championship team, including All-American and Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley, the Tigers are in need of players to step up and provide some push up front in Mike Pelton's first season on the job. One of the players expected to do just that is sophomore defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker.

A mountain of a man although he's only one year removed from high school, Whitaker played in 13 games for Auburn last season as the back-up to Fairley and seniors Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. Although he totaled just seven tackles he got plenty of playing experience and he said that is huge for him and many of his fellow freshmen heading into the 2011 season.

"I'm still working and grinding, but your comfort zone is growing," Whitaker said. "The confidence is just there. I really feel like I can go out and do my thing from the first play to the last play. That experience helps so much. People say we're inexperienced, but we signed 26 and played 19 last year. We don't have a ton of experience because last year we had a lot of seniors, but we do have the talent. It's just a big help to my confidence playing in every game. I really believe if you work hard then it's going to happen. It's meant to be."

Going back to the days when he was trying to decide on a school during the recruiting process Whitaker has always been a polished speaker and very mature in everything he does. Because of that he'll be expected to take on a leadership role on the Auburn defense even though he's still very young himself.

"You go through recruiting and you believe everything even though you know it might be too good to be true, but everything they told me in recruiting is happening," Whitaker said. "One of the things this staff talked about was my maturity and being a leader.

"Slowly but surely it's coming. I'm taking my time. I have been getting better at being a vocal leader, but my main thing is that I lead by example. Instead of saying we work hard, I work hard and then I say we work hard."

Losing five valuable players up front, linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, and defensive backs Zac Etheridge, Demond Washington and Mike McNeil, the Tigers have 10 experienced defenders that must be replaced this season. That's not counting the offense where eight valuable players have also departed.

With that in mind many pundits from across the country are touting the demise of Auburn football and calling the Tigers a one-hit wonder. Whitaker said he has no doubts the 2011 season is going to be a tough one, but he said this team has plenty of reasons to be excited about the new year and their turn at bat.

"I don't accept it at all," Whitaker said. "As a player from my point of view we played 19 out of 26 guys last year. We literally played. We were on the field and on the road. We went through adversity. In the spring you could kind of see that we were getting there, we just needed a little more work.

"The communication to the way we hustle to the ball, when you put a bunch of young guys on a team and tell them they can't do it, we're young so why can't we just go out there and play hard. We're going to play hard, go full speed, and we're talented. We can go neck and neck with you."

Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for Whitaker and the young Tigers came from must being around the older players and being a part of the championship season. Watching and learning from the veterans gave them a chance to see what it was all about Whitaker said. Now he sees the same things from the incoming freshmen and believes this team is going to have competition and desire from the opening day of practice until the final whistle blows on the 2011 campaign.

"I was talking with Coach (Tracy) Rocker when I first got here and I asked him what the difference was between the great teams he played on and just the regular teams," Whitaker said. "He said the difference was that everybody had the mentality that they wanted to go too. He said the back-ups, everybody wanted their shot.

"I'm not saying we're just like that, but you can see that right now everybody has the mentality that I want to go too. Just because he's good I want to go too so I can prove myself. Everybody has to prove something. At the same time everybody is saying we're not going to do it. That just makes it even better. I'm actually happy for it. I love to silence people. It's just a great challenge for us."

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