Whitner simply enjoys playing the sport of football. He likes spending extra time in the film room. He likes working out. He loves practice. The games are gravy.
"I want to be in the film room as much as I can, and watching film on my own," Whitner said. "I want to learn as much as I can. Playing football is fun and I want this team to be as good as we can."
The 5-11, 200-pound Whitner says there are some clear-cut goals for the Buckeyes to accomplish this spring.
"We just want to establish our own identity," Whitner said. "And not just Ohio State Buckeyes, you know, players that played here in the past. We have a lot of good players that played for the first time last year, but we just want to come out here in spring ball and we want to establish our own identity.
"As a defense last year, we feel we gave up too many yards rushing. In 2002 and 2003, we only gave up 69, 78 yards a game. Last year, I think we gave up 100-plus yards a game rushing. So, we want to get back to establishing a run-stopping once again. And once you stop the run, you make the other team one-dimensional. And from there, you can really win games."
If Whitner sounds intelligent beyond his years, that's because he is. He talks like a coach. And it's not lip service. This guy is the real deal. He is a leader.
There are about six or seven guys on OSU's defense that would qualify as leaders – A.J. Hawk and Nate Salley come to mind immediately – but Whitner is also establishing a leadership role with his actions.
"That's fine with me," he said. "I just want to help this team any way I can."
There have been rumblings that Whitner could move to corner this year. But those plans are on hold for now.
"I'm playing strong safety right now," he said. "Later on in the spring, I am going to move to some corner and stay at strong safety. But if something happens – if one of the guys isn't ready for the season – I'll probably be at corner, and Tyler (Everett) would probably come back and be the safety. Or, they could move Tyler to corner and I would be the safety."
Whitner was ranked as one of the top cornerbacks in the country coming out of Cleveland Glenville High School.
"Well, in high school I played both (corner and safety)," Whitner said. "Sometimes we would play a big-name receiver and the coaches would want me to cover him. But they felt I could make more plays at safety.
"But, coming in here, I was the top corner in the country and coming into spring ball my freshman year – you know, I left high school early – I was doing good at corner. I think I was second on the depth chart behind (Chris) Gamble, but I made a couple big hits in practice and (former OSU defensive coordinator Mark) Dantonio and (former OSU defensive backs coach Mel) Tucker wanted to move me to safety. Coming in, I played corner and safety."
Whitner feels he would be a good corner, he simply prefers roaming the middle as a headhunter at safety.
"The coaches here like physical corners," he said. "But, at safety, I feel like I can make a lot more plays. Coach (Jim) Tressel feels like I can make a lot more plays, but if something happens, he is not hesitant to put me at corner."
The one area of his game that might need some improvement is pass coverage, and no one knows that better than Whitner himself. He's not bad against the pass, but there is room to get better.
"Yes, I do feel like I can improve on my cover skills," Whitner said. "If I get back to the level I was when I first came in, coming out of high school, then I feel it would be a big plus for the team. I want to tighten up my cover skills."
Whitner and the rest of the defensive backs are breaking in a new coach this spring: Paul Haynes. Former DB coach Mel Tucker was tight with most of his players, but so far, Haynes has also made a positive impression.
"Well, Coach Haynes, he's a good coach," Whitner said. "He's similar to Mel. They came from the same system at Michigan State. But we do miss Mel. Mel is a funny guy. We miss his comments and his jokes and things. And Mel is one of the best defensive backs coach in the country. So, we're going to miss him a lot, but Coach Haynes is a good coach."
The next standout player to come out of Glenville could be cornerback Jamario O'Neal. Some expect him to challenge for playing time as a true freshman in 2005.
"Oh yeah, I do feel that Jamario can come in and compete right away," Whitner said. "He and Freddie Lenix were talking about coming in early, but they decided to stay. I don't know what happened with that. But coming into fall camp, (O'Neal) will be able to compete for a starting job."
Whitner and the Buckeyes had their first spring practice on Thursday.
"We had a couple of mistakes," Whitner said. "You know, first day of practice. Some players are coming out playing new positions. It was all right. We knew what to do. We just need to tighten up on some things and come together as a group, as we were at the end of last season."
Entering spring, Whitner has a firm grasp on OSU's defense. He knows the schemes and formations as well as anyone on the team.
"That's why in the offseason it is very important to study a lot of film on your own, because the coaches aren't going to be there with you," he said. "They can't be there with you. So, if you sit down by yourself, probably 20, 30 minutes each day and you learn a defense and you learn what the other players on the field are doing, then it will help you in your overall game."
Whitner understands that expectations are high for the Buckeyes in 2005.
"Oh yes, we know," he said. "We know what we are expected to do this year. We're expected to go to the national championship and we have a good team. We have a lot of players back from last year, but the coaches always preach, ‘Don't listen to the hype. Come out and practice hard each day and let the chips fall as they may.'"
Last season, Whitner finished the year fourth on the team in tackles with 69 (47 solo) despite being banged up for most of the season.
"Well, going into the season, I was 100 percent," Whitner said. "I didn't start the first two games, but I played a lot in those games. I then hurt my knee in the Indiana game. Was having a good season, from N.C. State, on to Indiana.
"I hurt my knee early in the Indiana game. Tore some meniscus on the outside and sprained my MLC. I tried to come back the Michigan State game, sat out the Penn State game. I played at about 50 percent for Michigan State, hurt, because we did not have enough DB's to go in and play. So, then I came out of that game and had surgery two days later, came back 10 days after that and played against Michigan.
"So, I was hurt a lot last year. I'm trying to stay healthy this year and I think I'll have a great season. I feel pretty good."
Whitner's interception return for a touchdown was the key play in Ohio State's 22-14 win at N.C. State last year.
"Yeah, I would say that is one of the highlights of my career so far," Whitner said of his 24-yard return. "But, I'm just looking to have a good season. Our team as a unit to have a good season. That play is in the past and we just want to go out and have a good season. We have Texas, which is going to be a big game. We want to go out and show everyone what we're all about. Play Michigan tough and then hopefully go to the national championship."
Whitner does not expect Ted Ginn Jr. to play much defense for the Bucks this year.
"I think he'll stay more on offense," Whitner said. "Unless it's a desperate, desperate need for a corner, I think he'll stay on offense. There is so many things he can do on offense and special teams and we don't need to risk getting him hurt on defense."
If senior cornerback E.J. Underwood returns in the fall, it would be a nice boost for the secondary.
"We hope to get E.J. back," Whitner said. "Get E.J. back with a clear head and ready to go. And E.J. is one of the best players on this team, believe it or not. E.J. is a great talent. That's a first round pick. So, we hope to get him back."
Whitner has been staying in contact with Underwood, letting him know the team still needs him.
"Actually, I saw him (Wednesday) and we were talking about it," Whitner said. "He feels that he is going to pick it up in the classroom this quarter and be on the field with us in the fall."