E.J. Whitley: Don't Split Yet

Former Texas Tech standout thrilled to have a chance to play for his childhood favorite.

Every once in a while, a team will draft a player with the intent of moving him to a position other than what he played in college. The Arizona Cardinals drafted the late Pat Tillman, a linebacker at Arizona State, to play safety. The Baltimore Ravens drafted Terrell Suggs, a college defensive end who also played at Arizona State, to play linebacker. With players of that talent, the transition can be made almost seamlessly.

That's not quite the scenario with the Cowboys' seventh-round selection of E.J. Whitley, although it might as well be. The 6-foot-7 Whitley, who played mostly left tackle last year at Texas Tech last year, is not being asked to learn an entirely new position, having played all over the offensive line at various points in his college career. But he still faces a major transition and learning curve to play in the NFL.

Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach is famous for his pass-happy offense that puts up the gaudiest offensive numbers in the country. One unique feature in the Red Raiders' gimmicky offense is that the offensive line doesn't line up shoulder-to-shoulder, like virtually every other offensive line in the country does. Instead, the Tech blockers line up in "wide splits," with six- to eight-foot gaps between each man.

The formation is perfect for a blocker of Whitley's size and skills. Even for a man as tall as he is, Whitley has unusually long arms, and for someone who tips the scales at more than 300 pounds, he's pretty light on his feet. Those features, coupled with the fact that the Tech quarterbacks are instructed to get the ball away as quickly as in any collegiate offense in the country, made him a stalwart for the Red Raiders.

However, there is not a team in the NFL that employs such a blocking scheme, and Whitley is the first to admit that the skills that made him successful in college don't necessarily translate to blocking successfully in the NFL.

"It (the wide-split blocking formation) works in college," Whitley said. "But there's no way we could do that here. The pass rushers in college aren't as finely tuned as they are in the NFL. At Texas Tech, the quarterback gets the ball away so fast that we can get away with that look, and it works because it creates passing lanes and running lanes.

"At this level, though, that won't work. There's not a team in the NFL that doesn't have guys fast enough and strong enough to shoot through and get the quarterback before he can get rid of the ball."

Whitley's learning curve will involve getting used to the idea of having -- of feeling -- another blocker next to him. It might seem like a minor issue, but consider that many of the injuries linemen suffer in practice stem from a lack of familiarity with the blockers next to them, leading to rolled ankles and feet getting spiked.

Primarily a tackle in college, Whitley spent much of the weekend mini- camp working at center, but said flanking other linemen so closely is a bigger adjustment than moving to a different position within the line.

"It's different, that's for sure," Whitley said. "We went with the wide-split line just about all the time at Tech, and obviously I'm not going to be doing any of that here. But it's still blocking. I've done as much pass blocking as anyone, and with the coaching you get here, I'll be fine."

Whitley admitted he was disappointed to fall to the seventh round, but said that in hindsight, he couldn't have chosen a better team with which to end up.

"I thought I'd be drafted higher," Whitley said. "When I started to slide, I thought I might be a free agent. But I've always been a Cowboys fan, and to be drafted by my favorite team is a real blessing. There's no place I'd rather be."

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