Rarely does a football player make it to the NFL playing just one position throughout his career. Positional changes are common at every level of the game, meaning most athletes will have played all over the field by the time they land a position at the pro level.
Consider Chicago Bears Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, who began his collegiate career at the University of Texas as a running back before switching to defense end and then, after making the big time, moving inside to defensive tackle.
Additionally, look at Chicago's first-round selection, offensive lineman Kyle Long, who began his collegiate career playing baseball, an entirely different sport.
Most will agree that no matter his path to the NFL, if an athlete can play and produce, he'll find a spot on the roster. Such might be the case with Aston Whiteside, who is currently the team's fourth defensive tackle. If the regular season started today, Whiteside would be rotating with Melton, Stephen Paea and Nate Collins at the D-tackle spot.
It's a surprising development for Whiteside, as he was an undersized edge rusher in college. At 6-2, 255, he's no bigger than he was playing for Abilene Christian, where he produced 135 tackles, 57.5 for loss, seven forced fumbles, 29.5 sacks and six blocked kicks in four seasons. Yet the Bears now having him playing DT, where 300 pounders are the norm. Melton, who is a svelte 280, is considered small for the 3-technique position, and Whiteside is 25 pounds lighter.
In fact, as a 2012 UDFA, the Dallas Cowboys attempted to place him at middle linebacker. It's a testament to Whiteside's versatility, something that obviously appeals to the new coaching staff.
"I started out last year playing linebacker, then I played defensive end now I'm playing D tackle," Whiteside told Bear Report. "As long as I know that playbook, I feel like I can play anywhere."
The Cowboys waived him early in training camp last year and the Bears immediately snatched him up. He spent last season on the practice squad, time obviously well spent, as he's now squarely in the middle of a battle for a roster spot. Along with Nate Collins, Andre Fluellen, Brent Russell, Christian Tupou and Zach Minter, Whiteside will fight for the next few months to be the primary backup to Melton at 3-technique, a competition for which he believes he's fully prepared.
"They threw me in the mix a little bit last year," he said. "I played a little bit of DT in college; we ran a 4-3."
At rookie minicamp, Whiteside was easily the most explosive defensive lineman and the quickest through the bag drills – and it wasn't even close. It makes sense though, as the rest of Chicago's interior defenders are all 300 pounds or larger. Whiteside's relative small size could work to his advantage, offering him more burst off the ball and the ability to one-gap penetrate, similar to how Melton takes advantage of his frame.
And Whiteside's experience on the edge could also be valuable to the club going forward, if injuries take their toll on the defensive end position.
"You've got to be able to play everywhere along the front," he said.
Not many folks are talking about him but Whiteside could be a pleasant surprise coming out of training camp, especially if he continues to improve as an interior defender.
"We've got really good coaches. [Defensive line coach] Mike Phair does a really good job," said Whiteside. "Coach [Rod] Marinelli, he did a good job last year [helping] me learn the defense. When you've got guys like [Julius] Peppers and Henry, learning from those guys is pretty easy."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.