Now back on the field this spring after having knee surgery last fall and working towards having a big final year on the Plains, Whitaker said last year was a big learning experience for a player that had already been through more than most guys his age.
"For one, I knew from just growing up, life has a mean right hook," Whitaker said. "Being out for a year, I had to pick on some things in my personal life that happened to me. I know I can overcome this. Life is two times harder. I know I can overcome with the teammates I got, the coaches that are here to help me.
"Chette Williams (team chaplain) was great to me, talking with him," he said. "It came down to me making a mature decision. This was the right decision in my mind, but it was not probably the most popular decision I wanted to hear at the time."
Playing a big role for the Tigers as a true freshman on the way to the 2010 BCS National Championship, Whitaker was used to being on the field for Auburn. With 19 career starts and 36 games played in his first three years, Whitaker worked hard to try to get back on the field last season but just didn't feel good about rushing back later in the year.
"At first we were looking coming back around Texas A&M, but by the time that week came, we were picking up at the rehab, but I didn't feel comfortable where it was at," Whitaker said. "I had to talk to Coach (Gus Malzan) and man up and tell him how I felt. Like my dad and my brother taught me, after I made the decision, everybody felt like it was the right decision."
Jeff Whitaker has done a good job this spring coming off surgery
Able to practice towards the end of last season and during the important bowl practices in December and January, Whitaker hit the ground running this spring ready to take a step forward in his development as a player. Working at tackle while Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams have spent time playing end, the 6-4, 320 senior said getting plenty of work has been huge for him to knock the rust off.
"I've gotten a lot of reps," Whitaker said. "I think it is a good thing. It's kind of like getting my feet wet. This spring has been good for me, trying to get better and better each day. I'm working on my fundamentals, getting them back in tune. This spring has been very important to me.
"I'm still working to get better," he added. "This spring just getting my feet wet. As far as right thing, feel like to get back to myself. My goal is to be a physical guy…to be the most physical guy on the field. The way spring has been going, it's been working toward that. I've had some bad days. I've had some good days, but I think the way we're going, overall as a team, we needed a spring like this."
Malzahn notes that he is pleased to have Whitaker back in the mix on the defensive front. "He has got a lot of experience," the coach said. "It's great to have him back on the field. He is one of our leaders on and off the field, and you can tell he's healthier and moving well."
A player who has seen a lot during his time at Auburn, Whitaker is one of a large group of veterans on defense for the Tigers and Coach Rodney Garner this spring. Counted on for leadership heading into his final year, Whitaker said he's got plenty of advice for the young players on the team right now and the guys that will be coming in this summer to provide immediate depth.
"The game is going to slow down," Whitaker said. "They're going to eventually get caught up with it. I feel like in our case we have the best D-line coach in the country. At the end of the day, we just have to focus in on what he's telling us and that's going to make us so much better players.
"My main thing to the young guys is to take advantage of having a Coach Garner, and takes all the tools he's giving you, and put on your tool belt for the future," Whitaker added.