State kept a 7-0 lead as a result after one quarter, stayed up a point the next two periods, and broke it open late for a program-changing win. More personally the play was Whitley's breakout moment and since then he's established quite the reputation for laying lumber.
"It doesn't really surprise me," he said of becoming a fan favorite. "I know how hard I'm hitting, because it hurts myself too!" Yeah, that law of action-and-reaction does work both ways when intense athletes meet…the hard way. Whatever the head- and all-over-aches, though, "Nah, I can't back off, I just have to take the pain and keep going."
Nobody can accuse Whitley of backing off. His relentless, some might say reckless approach has brought plaudits from fans. And, at least one flag from an official when he walloped an Auburn Tiger face-up and out of bounds. It's the price of playing his way, Whitley admitted.
"Coach always tells me go in head-first and take what comes. In little league coach taught me how to go in hitting and just go hard. It's the only way you're going to succeed." About the only time he dials back on the aggression is when the other ‘team' are teammates.
"He's smart in practice," Coach Dan Mullen said. "But he'll get after it a little bit. Not as much this time of year as in spring ball and summer camp."
Fortunately, this is much more than a hard hitter. Whitley is a solid safety, whether starting or rotating with senior Wade Bonner, and has 15 tackles so far this season. As dramatic as the contact though and even more game-changing are his two interceptions, including the end-zone pick that allowed State to beat Louisiana Tech in just one overtime. He had three more interceptions as a freshman.
Whitley confesses to applying a little bit of inside-information in coverage duty. "I played quarterback in high school, so I can look at the quarterback sometimes and know what he's going to do. It makes it easier to read."
And, presumably, gets him to the ball a step faster. More often though said ball will be in the hands of a runner or receiver…and that suits the safety OK, too. "I try to make sure they feel it any time they get the ball."
KICKING CONTRASTS: Now that Alabama and LSU have finally booted kickoffs into an end zone, Mississippi State is—again—the last SEC team without a touchback. None of the 25 tries to-date have made it past the goal line, though on opening night a couple of Brian Egan's attempts did come within a step. He has averaged 63.6 yards.
This wouldn't be so bad in itself, save that kickoff coverage is not strong either. State has allowed 517 return yards on the kickoffs, easily most in the SEC. Compounding it, Bulldog returning as well is last in the league at under 16 yards. It all adds up to the ‘hidden yardage' and imbalances in field position that can tell over a game's course.
Nor is it that there aren't Bulldogs able to cover. State's punting game is consistently good and even excellent. Of Baker Swedenburg's 24 punts, opponents have managed to lose six yards when they do attempt returns. Which isn't too often as the sophomore punter has three touchbacks and eight fair-catches thanks to strong coverage.
Mullen thinks the strain is showing on punt coverage…and that's a good thing. "And we've made a couple of big plays, negative yardage plays obviously to help. But when we put some of our young guys on the field it's learning to strain and play at full-speed.
"Some of the guys on punt team may be ahead of some of the places where guys are straining to get down the field. And you're getting pretty consistent punts from Baker. I'd love to see some big ones every once in a while but in practice he's very consistent, so you're getting a ‘game' look every rep in practice of where the ball is going to be and where you're going to have to get to to cover it."
ROOKIE REPORT: Speaking of covering, one Bulldog—a pup, actually—understands exactly what Mullen means when he says the best way to stand out first at State is on special teams. True freshman Dee Arrington has already found a niche on the kickoff coverage squad and played all four games so far.
Which means a month into his college career, Arrington fully understands now why everyone warns that even the best prep players have an adjustment in store. Especially on special teams. "Well, it's hard, it's fast. I mean it ain't nothing like playing defense!" the rookie safety said.
"But I'm learning, I try to scheme-up like the rest of the guys how to play special teams. But when I get on the field it seems like it goes faster than practice! So I have to learn during the game how to scheme something out."
That came as something of a shock to a guy able to outrun everyone else on the field as a two-way star at Stone High School and PARADE All-American. He'd been warned, but… "Everyone seems faster than me. I'm not really used to that. But I do feel I fight through it and do what I have to do." And it can be a fight sometimes, mostly with his own nerves as the college contests open.
"My first couple of kickoffs in a game seem like they're my worst! But I get better throughout the game." Partly because older hands like special teams regular Marvin Bure or seniors safety Charles Mitchell, playing the position Arrington would love to have someday, keep talking to the new kid, offering advice, providing corrections. "Making sure I'm doing my job," Arrington said.
"It's waaaay different. I thought it wasn't going to be that much different but you have to do a lot of work, a lot of film room, and study a lot more than high school, because you're going to go out there and not know what to do. And I think I work hard every day. I just learn from Charles and Wade and Nickoe and watch them, and when they come to the side ask them what I was supposed to have done, just keep checking."
Arrington might still be getting up to full-speed, but it hasn't kept him from rattling a few cages on kickoffs. "Yeah, I'm making contact. I've had a couple of good hits, one was in the LSU game." It's worth wondering if the talented athlete ever asks for a shot at being the tackled instead of tackler; Arrington was an excellent running back in high school, too, after all.
"Nah, I just love to play on defense." And on special teams as well. For now only on the kickoff-cover crew, but "I'm backup on kickoff return and I work hard on it every day so if my guy goes down I'm going to know what to do when I get in there." The real point for now is Arrington has confirmed he knew what he was doing when signing on at Mississippi State last February. Even if he never expected to be playing by September.
"Everything is hard work but the choice I made, I'm glad I made it."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Reports from the weekend's home team is Georgia is encouraging fans to be especially loud for this conference contest. Mullen shrugged it off as the normal course of any good SEC game…though he couldn't resist getting a jibe in at the league office. "Better make sure they don't have any artificial things in there, it's just their voices."…
With James Carmon back up to speed after missing two games on a knee sprain, the week's trick is settling where he adds the most to a likely-revamped offensive line. Mullen said Monday that the two-game starter at left tackle was working at both that position and at guard. As the team was off yesterday, Tuesday was the first chance for following-up.
Asked where Carmon worked today, "Everywhere," was Mullen's answer which he quickly clarified as "Both." Meaning apparently the only slot Carmon isn't testing at is center for now, though veteran Quentin Saulsberry could literally play any of the five positions and Carmon's two-game substitute Blaine Clausell has also been measured at guard.
"We'll mix and match people at different spots," said Mullen, before making a final lineup…when? "We'll decide on Saturday."…
Following Tuesday's practice, Mullen said it looked as if settling into a true ‘game week' routine after the convoluted September weeks was helping. "It was good to get back on season schedule," he said. "Back in a SEC game, a normal practice week, I think the intensity is picking up a little bit."