"On the Spot" with PK Nate Whitaker [#39]

The friendly but fierce competiton for Stanford's 2009 place-kicking duties finds Notre Dame transfer Nate Whitaker battling it out not only with veteran Travis Golia, but with his own freshman walk-on brother Eric Whitaker as well. We check in with Nate to see how he is enjoying his new life on the Farm and his role as a protective sibling to a younger brother who has his eyes on the same job.

"On the Spot": PK Nate Whitaker [#39]

After a recent morning practice, The Bootleg's "Emeritus" caught up with PK Nate Whitaker, a redshirt junior who transferred to Stanford last fall from the University of South Bend. Not only is he competing for a role as the team's starting field goal-kicker, but one of his competitors is his own younger brother Eric Whitaker, a freshman walk-on for the Cardinal recently profiled in our "We Walk" Series.

The Bootleg: Okay we're here with Nate Whitaker. Let's get caught up a little bit on you, Nate. You joined the team last year in mid-September after transferring in from Notre Dame - can you explain the timing of that a little bit?

Nate Whitaker: Notre Dame didn't release me and I had a hearing with them to try to get released but they wouldn't because Stanford was on the schedule.

TB: Was that because you were on scholarship in South Bend?

NW: No, I was a "preferred walk-on", but I still needed to get a release to avoid sitting out a year.

TB: Was that because the Irish felt they needed you that badly - what were the circumstances?

NW: I'm not sure. I think that they wanted me there, but also the standard there is that if there's a team on the schedule, they don't like to release the players. That's why Konrad (TE Konrad Reuland) went to the JC first. With me, I didn't get released so I couldn't report to football until after school started - until the first day of school.

TB: So what's your current eligibility status then?

NW: I have two years left. I redshirted last year.

TB: Did you know Konrad? Obviously you guys were teammates, but did you know him pretty well?

NW: We were good friends actually at Notre Dame. It was weird that we both ended up here. It was pretty funny. I called him and asked him how he went about everything just because I wanted to do it right. There were like 10 transfers from Notre Dame's team. Some of them left on bad terms…I wanted to understand the process.

TB: That is a considerable amount of turnover - was that just the result of changing coaching staffs? Obviously it's a high-powered program with lots of pressure across the board...

NW: I don't really know. Everyone had their own reasons. For some people, the school just wasn't for them. There were a lot of things. Some people had issues with the team, coaching staff, or they didn't like playing time. There were a whole bunch of different things.

TB: So let's go back to your high school days. When you were thinking about schools, who else had you been considering and why did you end up at Notre Dame. Are you Catholic, did you have a relative attend?

NW: I actually am Catholic, but that wasn't really a big issue for me. I'm not really that big of a "practicing Catholic".  My mom went there for a year and then got homesick and went to UOP (Pacific University) and then SDSU. My grandpa actually graduated from Notre Dame, so I do have some family history. My grandpa loved it! He got injured in high school and couldn't play, but he ended up joining the band so he could be around football.

TB: We heard a rumor that your legal first name is actually "Knute" and that you changed it to "Nate" to get rid of the obvious Notre Dame association, is that true?

NW: No, no. My real name is actually "Nathan", really!

TB: So this is a little bit odd. You're now going to come and play for a new team with Notre Dame on the schedule. Very possibly, you could go back to South Bend next year and kick off against your former school. You were handling kickoffs for Notre Dame against Stanford in both 2006 and 2007, correct?

NW: Right. Actually, Stanford was my first choice coming out of high school and I was getting recruited here, but the coach that was recruiting me (Tom Quinn) left and went to a professional team and the ball got dropped on me. My recruiting coach actually came out to San Diego and talked to me at my high school, but then the ball dropped when he left.

Coach Harbaugh actually recruited me when he was at USD, the University of San Diego, and I went to high school and played football with his son, Jay. That's how I knew him and it was a good connection to have. And then after the Notre Dame thing, I talked to Coach Harbaugh and that worked out.

TB: You were splitting duties with other specialists at Notre Dame so you weren't the main field goal guy. Can you explain what happened on that one PAT you missed against Purdue?

NW: (Laughing) It was actually a weird situation. The whole thing in the media guide is actually incorrect. I had an extra point attempt and made it, but we had jumped offsides so we had another chance, five yards back. I hit it, but there was a guy coming off the edge. I've been playing sports all of my life and saw him out of my peripheral vision and tried to adjust to hit it right slightly and I pushed it wide right by about an inch. It was a good hit.  But the guy who came in was offsides! The third time, I made it right down the middle. It was really one-for-one. The second one I tried to adjust myself. The media guide makes me look bad!

TB: The decision to go to Notre Dame…You weren't obsessed with the movie Rudy or anything? You didn't make friends with the bald field maintenance guy or anything.

NW: (Smiling) I couldn't pass up Notre Dame, but no, no  Rudy obsessions or field maintenance guys. None of that.

TB: C'mon, Nate. When you got out there, was it like Rudy at all?

NW: Oh yeah, there was little bit of Rudy-ness. The tradition and everything was amazing at Notre Dame. There were a lot of good things there and there are pros and cons at both schools. Neither school is completely better than the other. There was definitely a lot of tradition and the fan base there was amazing also. You can't beat that.

TB: Did you date any of the St. Mary's girls?

NW: Actually yeah, I did.

TB: The Bootleg likes to know these things. Is that a long distance thing now?

NW: No, I still talk to her. We're really good friends - there's still a little something, but…

TB: Before we get into some of the kicking specifics let's talk about your brother, Eric. Who can bench more? Who has the stronger leg?

NW: I can bench more, but he's catching up. I still have the stronger leg. He has a couple more years to catch up. We're both young for our class. I'm just turning 21 on the 29th and he just turned 18 a couple of days ago.

TB: Describe the nature of your sibling relationship...

NW: We're actually really close brothers. We were competitive. He was always better at video games and I would be punching him in the arm and he'd get pissed off. He would beat me every time. It was fun though and we were really close. He would run around in the mall when we were younger and he'd get lost and I'd be freaking out because he was lost. We've always had a close relationship.

TB: Is there any difference in how walk-ons are treated here at Stanford compared to how they're treated at Notre Dame. Is it more equal here?

NW: I like how we're treated here better. I don't notice a difference at all with how we're treated [compared to the "scholarship" players.] I mean, at Notre Dame it's supposed to be equal, but in my opinion there were some....differences.

TB: In the scrimmage yesterday (Scrimmage #2), I saw you were very consistent, 4-4 from the 40-yard range and then you were trying some stuff off of the hash and maybe one longer one. What is your comfortable range?

NW: I'd say between 45-50 yards I'm comfortable. Around 50, I have to put a little more into it so it's not quite as consistent, but I'd say up to around 50 yards I'm pretty consistent for the most part.

TB: Your goal here is to compete for all of the kicking opportunities, not just being a kickoff specialist?

NW: Definitely.

TB: How deep can you usually go on your kickoffs? Are you trying to get it into the end zone every time?

NW: We're focusing more on hang time. I get around four-plus-second hang time on a kick to around the five-yard line and goal line. The last week, I've been kicking between the minus-five and five-yard line with about four-second hang time.

TB: So that's good…

NW: Yeah, they're solid hits. I'm definitely happy with that.

TB: It looks like consistency is one of your strengths. Every ball "looked" exactly the same from my view.

NW: Consistency is what I've always been striving for. In high school there were a couple years when I prided myself more on my power, but then I got over that and realized that's not what kicking is about. It's about being consistent.

TB: You have kicked off quite a bit - any credited special teams tackles?

NW: I did have a couple. There was one my last year at Notre Dame that I had against USC. I don't remember who it was, but it was a head-to-head open field tackle. It was pretty fun. But then I had my fair share of misses. I had one where I got stiff-armed pretty badly. After the game I went and visited my friend who was having some people over. He has a big screen TV and he had TiVo'd the game and he just froze it on me with my neck bent back for like five hours. Everyone was like, "who's that?" and he's like, ‘Oh that's Nate, he's right over there!'

TB: You Whitaker boys look like decent athletes. You don't seem to fit the classic "kickers aren't real football players" stereotype....

NW: Right. Both my brother and I, we played soccer our whole lives. I played club and high school soccer and ran track. I did the 100 and 200 hurdles and I was on the surf team.

TB: Did you continue that particular beach activity back at South Bend?

NW: (Laughing) No. Actually, a funny story - I did bring my skim board out there and when there was snow and ice on the ground we'd throw our boards out there on the grass. My friend from Hawaii and I would do stupid stuff like that.

TB: Do you guys wear "standard" face masks or do you get one that has better vision? You don't go with the single bar or anything strange?

NW: We have the standard "receiver" mask. Another thing - I did play receiver in high school, not really my senior year, but at USD Coach Harbaugh was looking at me for receiver and kicker, so that would have been fun. I miss the action, but you gotta give.

TB: How are you under pressure? Do you relish it? Does it make you nervous? What are your routines for getting past it?

NW: I like pressure. I feel like the more pressure, the less you have to think. If you get consistent and get the muscle memory down you go into a pressure situation and just let your body take over. If you have got it down, it's easier, I think.  

TB: Do you pace around and kick a bunch of balls into the net?

NW:  Not really. I hit a few into the net, just to make sure my leg's warm. Other than that I don't really pace around or anything. I mean I jump around and get warm but it's all really a warm-up issue.

TB: Quick scenario. Let's say we're down by two to Cal with about a minute to go. Are you hoping you get a chance to kick a field goal to win it or would you just as soon have the team go down and score a touchdown?

NW: I'd always rather score a touchdown for the team, but I love kicking field goals. My favorite thing to do is to hit a long field goal. Any field goal I like, but long field goals are really fun just because of the glory behind it. The team is always first – you want to win by as much as you can.

TB: How is this for your parents? They have two sons now attending Stanford University and playing football on the same team. That has to be a dream come true for your family....

NW: Particularly for my mom. My mom loves it because she's a "worry-wart". She likes having me here in case my brother needs anything. My mom's pretty protective and she worries all the time. She calls us like two or three times a week, but my mom loves the fact that both of us are here because my brother has someone who's been through it before.

TB: We might have somewhat different wind conditions than you did in South Bend. You don't mind the sunshine – it's more like home, right?

NW: Yeah, just a little bit. There's not six months out of the year with snow.

TB: What are you studying?

NW: Product design.

TB: So are you going to be hanging around the Silicon Valley, making the big bucks by designing tech products?

NW: (Laughing) Yeah, I've always been into design and art. It's big, I like it.

TB: Have you been able to move a lot of your credits?

NW: I transferred as many possible. I transferred 90 units, which is two years worth.

TB: Thanks very much and best of luck within your competition and have a great season.

NW: Thanks, I appreciate it.

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