Whitley Back At Full-Speed And Full-Contact

Getting back on the field ahead of most schedules was impressive enough. So was laying the licks as if he'd never missed a game, much less months of off-season drills. But scoring his first interception of 2012? Now that proves beyond question, Nickoe Whitley is back.

"It felt good to get an interception again, I hadn't had one in a long time," Whitley said of his second-quarter pick against South Alabama. The one that stopped a Jaguar drive short of Mississippi State's goal line, and was taken back 66 yards. It was Whitley's first interception since October 15 of last season.

Not only that, but this junior safety was all over Scott Field in week-four. Against the Jaguars, he piled up seven total tackles; five of them when Whitley was first Dog defender making contact. "It was a pretty good game," he agreed, with just one thing lacking. The interception return, because he was caught 26 yards away from the South Alabama end zone.

"I did think I was going to take it back at first. I think I ran out of gas a little bit at the end!"

No problem. Considering that many, including coaches, were unsure Whitley would be able to play in September 2012 at all, much less play as well as he has, his performance to-date is a triumph. Through four games, all Bulldog victories, Whitley has compiled 24 tackles from his free safety position. Even better, he has been consistent in contests where the varsity had to play most of the way. Seven stops against Auburn, six more at Troy, now seven last Saturday.

So if he was a little winded on his first turnover return, well, that too will come in just a bit. "I'm pretty much good on conditioning. I've still got a little ways to go compared to the other guys."

But of course those other guys are not rebounding from the sort of serious setback Whitley suffered last November. A ripped right-leg Achilles ended the sophomore season too soon, leaving him with 34 total tackles in eight-plus outings. And, four interceptions in that shortened schedule. In fact Whitley had seven total picks in his first 22 college games, so no wonder he was getting antsy about getting hands on a pass this year.

About his readiness to perform at a SEC level again, and as early as September? There were few anxieties on that score. "I knew I was going to come back early. Because when I wasn't supposed to be working out I worked, before it was time," Whitley said.

"The last four games I've been trying to prove to myself, make sure that I'm back to what I should be. And go out and make a statement."

He's done that for sure. And speaking of statement-making, Whitley has more than answered whatever questions fans and maybe moreso foes had about his most-noted talent. That is, of delivering the big hit, the knock-out shot, whether coming up on a running back or making a receiver pay for catching. Whitley showed he'd lost none of the old instincts as early as opening night, and since then has put people down just as before the injury.

"Yeah, I've been waiting on a couple of those big hits," he said. Though he has yet to add a really memorable one to his private record. Such as, when Whitley rattled the football free from that Georgia receiver at the goal line and recovered the fumble, perhaps the key defensive play of the entire 2010 turnaround season. "Yeah, that was like the first big one. And that is the one I remember the most." Or, the sideline shot issued at Auburn last fall…not that Whitley escaped that one unscathed. "I really don't remember much from the first half of that game!"

But as for ranking the rattlings? "I don't really know. As long as they're going to the ground, they are all my favorite!"

The downside to Whitley's headhunting reputation is he gets a little less margin from the men in stripes. And Whitley has drawn some flags worth flinging, he'll admit. It has made 2012 something of a challenge with the tighter rules on taking out a ‘defenseless player'. Whitley said it is harder going after, say, a receiver in the air now. Or staying below helmet-level after the ball-carrier has ducked the head in advance of pending collisions. All Whitley can do is stick to his training and not let the rules intimidate him from doing the job.

"I just go and hope they don't throw a flag!"

But he does welcome having footballs thrown his direction. Without giving away any of his run-support assignments, Whitely finds Mississippi State's gameplans this season so-far to allow him more room to roam.

"Because I get to play more deep coverage. And in man I get to just run around in there." That must make receivers feel really comfortable running middle routes now, reckon? Yet with pick-off artists John Banks and Darius Slay covering the corners, and now converted CB Corey Broomfield working at strong safety, opponents have to throw the ball somewhere and take their chances. By the way, Whitley enjoys his new-for-'12 comrade, the ebullient Broomfield.

"It's been fun. I've had to teach him a few things after he's been playing corner. But he's catching on quick." Without, Whitley says, losing the energy Broom is known for. And yes, the guy talks just as much at safety as he ever did at cornerback.

"Sometimes he acts like he wants to get a little nosy, and get up too close to the action! But he's getting the hang of it. I help him with really just staying deep and not looking in the backfield too much in man coverage."

To cover and hit and tackle today as if he'd never been injured is a remarkable comeback story. Of course Whitley already knew something about rehab; his senior high school season was ended on opening night by a knee injury, on the left leg. That time his return wasn't as rushed since Whitley couldn't get back before the prep schedule concluded. But he was ready to go the next August and after redshirting Whitley started 11 of 13 games in 2010 with 52 tackles and three picks.

"And there was a lot more hard work coming back from that than the knee," he said. "I realized I was back the last couple of practices of two-a-days. I felt like I was back doing what I was supposed to be doing. The coaches were just going off what I said at first. If I said I was feeling good I guess they felt good about it, too. I don't even feel it, it's pretty much good now and I don't really think about it."

No, today it's the other teams thinking about how to handle this hard-hitting and better-covering safety. In fact he admits a little surprise how skilled he's become harassing receivers, especially with the man-on-man assignments State assigns. Just don't get any idea Whitley is going to become a stay-back safety.

"I can still bring the pain!"

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