Chad Whitener realized that he wanted to be closer to home and that his first decision to go out west to California-Berkeley for his college football and academic career was not the best choice. I remember seeing Whitener and his mother on the visit to Oklahoma State.
I remember Whitener was a good looking prospect at linebacker, but over the last two seasons plus I have rarely seen a player work as hard, care as much, and improve as steadily as Whitener. That said, even after playing as the backup at middle linebacker, a beefed up Whitener will tell you that when senior starter Ryan Simmons went down with torn MCL and PCL ligaments in the Kansas State game that he wasn't ready for the workload he was about to take on. It was a serious and stepped up education that Whitener began.
The performance was there as after making five unassisted and five assisted tackles in the first four games, Whitener had nine tackles, all unassisted, in the Kansas State game. That was followed by 11 tackles, six unassisted at West Virginia, later on there were two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown to go with 12 tackles in the win over TCU, and a career-high 19 tackles, 12 unassisted, vs. Baylor. Loads of production but also lots of misreads and lessons learned.
"It helped a lot. As far as experience and stuff goes, being out there in actual game speed," Whitener said of the experience he was soaking up. "I mean our practice speed against our offense we go really fast, but being out there against the TCUs, the Baylors, the OUs, with how fast they play – getting lined up and everything, making sure everyone is communicating, that's the biggest experience part of it."
Trust is important with Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who knows his middle linebacker is the eyes and ears of his defense on the field. Spencer is always talking about player's eyes and where they need to be. Whitener was just learning the top line on the eye chart. He had some work to do to get everything in focus with the opposing offense and then communicating with his teammates.
"Chad got a lot out of that experience last season," Spencer said. "That was the good that came out of the situation, but the bad was Ryan Simmons was really playing well and Ryan really had become a player that saw the field and read the opposing offense and could get everybody on the defense in the right position. Chad had a long way to go, but he's worked hard at it and I trust Chad. I think he will do a good job, but like I always say, you have to do it on the field."
Whitener is more confident, from both last season and all the work that goes in from the spring and through camp, in being the guy.
"It's a lot more reps. I'll be in better shape football-wise," Whitener, a native of Mansfield where he was teammates with Cowboys offensive tackle Zach Crabtree and new to the defense, senior graduate transfer cornerback Lenzy Pipkins, who came in from Louisiana-Monroe. "For me, the communication part is the most important thing I've been focusing on this camp. Making sure I'm talking to everybody, making sure everybody gets the checks. That's like the biggest difference for me."
Whitener can't wait, and like this reporter he senses this defense is ready. He feels there is talent, and lots of it around him. He's ready to see what it looks like in a real game. It may be a pressure point, that middle linebacker in a Spencer-coached defense, really any defense, but Whitener feels prepared.
"It's been a really good camp. I feel like we have matured with how many guys we have coming back," he added. "We are really focusing on getting all of our assignments and getting everything right instead of more freaking out with all the little things we have to do playing defense. Coaching effort is not our issue anymore because guys understand how our program is run."
Saturday against the spread option attack of Southeastern Louisiana it is time for it to take off.