Lazy. Unmotivated. Complacent. Bust.
Chris Whaley was the top running back prospect in the state and one of the best in the nation in 2009.
All of those words have been used freely to describe Chris Whaley over the past three years. And as it turns out, all of those words inaccurately depict the junior from Madisonville.
It would be easy to assume that about a running back who was Texas' lone take at the position in the class of 2009 and who had seemingly ate his way to the defensive line. While he arrived at Texas as a 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back and now checks in at 293 pounds from his defensive tackle position, Whaley didn't get moved to the trenches merely by propping himself next to a buffet table.
The reality is he went from being arguably one of the biggest potential running back busts the state of Texas has produced in the past decade to being a motivated, dedicated, athletic defensive tackle who now sits No. 1 on the Texas Longhorns depth chart at nose tackle.
It's taken a lot of hard work to make his transformation work – a tale that could go down as one of the biggest redemption stories in the Mack Brown era – and nobody knows that more than his teammates who have seen him put his all into being the best defensive tackle he can be.
“He's really taken to the defensive line,” Jordan Hicks said. “He's been in the weight room working hard. He's really adapted to that position and done everything that's been asked of him.
“He's a big, physical guy, and obviously fast,” Hicks added. “He's a big asset for our team.”
Realizing he's not a running back
Despite all of the handwringing about the Longhorns either being unable to land, or unwilling to pursue the likes of Trent Richardson, Christine Michael and Cierre Wood among others, Whaley came to Texas as the lone running back take in the 2009 recruiting class with some serious credentials.
Whaley could never really find his place in the running back depth chart over his first two years on the 40 Acres.
He rushed for over 6,100 yards and 79 touchdowns during his prep career, averaging nine yards per carry in the process. He arguably out-performed Michael and Wood during the 2009 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a game where he scored a touchdown on a 46-yard screen pass.
When he hit the field for the 2009 THSCA All-Star Game at DKR, however, he didn't look anything like the player I saw in San Antonio.
Whaley looked to be in bad shape, showing poor conditioning, and more than a step too slow. The bad weight took him from someone who might have been in contention to be the Longhorns' starting running back that fall, to being buried on the depth chart.
Putting on bad weight is something that was a concern early in Whaley's football career.
Whaley's high school coach Greg Morgan once recalled during Whaley's recruitment that he showed up more than 20 pounds overweight for two-a-days his sophomore year. Whaley's athletic ability still allowed him to rush for more than 2,000 yards that season, but when the weight issues resurfaced upon his arrival at Texas, he started hearing chatter from his teammates that maybe this prized running back recruit should start thinking about moving closer to the line of scrimmage.
“When I first came in a lot of the defensive guys teased me,” Whaley said. “They said I was just like Henry Melton and I'd get put on defense.”
He was always focused on playing running back, and appreciated that Major Applewhite didn't give up on him being a part of the mix in the backfield.
“Coach Applewhite always influenced me to keep working hard,” Whaley said. “He told me when I came here that there was no talk about me playing defense. He said I needed to just work hard and try to earn my place on the field.”
Now pushing close to 300 pounds, Whaley is still able to use his superior athleticism to impact the game as a defensive tackle.
Making moves and finding his place
By the time the fall of 2010 rolled around, Whaley's running back days were pretty much numbered. He began working at tight end, H-back and fullback, and by the spring of 2011 his move to the defensive line was in motion.
Most would look at that chain of events as Whaley having been a colossal failure. While everyone on the outside assumed the worst, Whaley said he never got down on himself.
“I worked hard and it didn't work out,” Whaley said of being a running back. “But I never got discouraged.”
At one point you'd have had better luck searching for Whaley on the back of a milk carton than the Texas depth chart. Despite his struggles, Whaley never got anywhere close to wanting to look for a fresh start.
“When I made my decision to come to UT, it's where I always wanted to be,” he said. “Even if I didn't play running back, I wasn't going to transfer.”
While he was willing to move positions within the offense, defense was something he was hesitant to do. The only defense Whaley played in high school was at free safety during a handful of games as a freshman before injuries prompted him to move to running back at midseason and never look back.
He hated defense. He didn't like hitting people and always preferred to play offense. It was after several conversations with Assistant Athletic Director for Strength & Conditioning Jeff Madden when he finally became open to the idea.
At first, Whaley said he and Madden joked about him moving to defense. Then the conversations became serious, and Whaley's trust in Madden made the move something that wasn't just a passing thought anymore.
“He said there was no reason I shouldn't be on the field helping the team,” Whaley said. “I told him I'd do whatever I could to help the team. One day he called me and asked if I was ready to move to defense, and I told him I was. That's when we went and talked to Coach (Mack) Brown.”
Finding his niche, making a difference
Whaley started spring football in 2011 at defensive end. By fall camp last year he made the final spin-down, becoming a defensive tackle.
As Whaley began to learn his craft, he had several people helping him along the way. One of those people is the man he's trying to help replace this season – former Longhorn defensive tackle Kheeston Randall.
It was Randall and the other defensive tackles who made Whaley's move as seamless of a transition as it could be.
“He took me in,” Whaley said. “Those guys taught me how to do everything. I never felt out of place.”
Obviously Bo Davis deserves a lot of the credit for aiding in Whaley's development. Whaley said Davis taught him about leverage, pad level, hand placement, gap discipline and all of nuances of playing the position that helped Whaley feel comfortable about where he was entering the 2011 season.
“Coach Davis took me in and treated me the same as the other guys,” Whaley said. “I get the same amount of reps as the other guys. It's a wonderful opportunity.”
It's an opportunity that Whaley ran with.
He actually started showing flashes of being a playmaker during his sophomore season. When he sniffed out a screen pass and ran it down effortlessly in the Longhorns' home romp over Texas Tech, he showed he could be a factor in the trenches.
When he earned the starting job at nose tackle at the end of camp, his move to defensive tackle wasn't just a ploy to keep a once highly-touted recruit on the roster. And definitely not an experiment that was destined to fail.
Whaley had become the impact player many once hoped he'd be. It just happened to be in the most unconventional way possible.
“He's always had athletic ability,” Mason Walters said. “The key for him is he's completely bought into the philosophy on that side of the ball. Going from being a running back to being a defensive tackle is something you don't see too often, but to Chris' credit he's done really well there.”
The player who said he once hated playing defense now has to stop himself from going too hard when the team isn't in full pads so he doesn't unload vicious hits on his own teammates.
Parts of playing defense Whaley once loathed, he now loves.
“Just lining up and being able to come off the ball,” Whaley said. “Being able to chase the ball. It's fun for me.”
Earning the respect of his teammates
Mack mentioned upon the release of the depth chart that Whaley is a player the team wants to see do well. Manny Diaz added that Whaley is someone the team respects because of his hard work and dedication to his craft.
The players have echoed those sentiments this week as Saturday's season opener approaches.
“When you see Chris he always has a smile on his face and he's laughing and joking, but on the field he's serious,” Joe Bergeron said. “You don't want to laugh and joke when he's running at you in 9-on-7.
“You see him after a play and he's tired,” Bergeron added. “Then he goes full speed the next play. I admire that about him.”
On a defense full of leaders who are respected to the point that others listen to everything they say, Hicks said Whaley has become a leader because of what everyone sees him do.
“He's taken on a quiet leadership role,” Hicks said. “People see the way he works and they understand that he's somebody who will definitely help us this year.”
Maybe the person who has gained the most respect for Whaley is his position coach. Whaley said not only did Davis teach him the finer points of playing defensive tackle, but he's the one who has brought out all of the things in Whaley that everyone in the locker room has come to respect.
“Coach Davis always tells me I have a gift,” Whaley said. “He tells me to never hold back, and use it.”
Figuring out what the future holds
I once wrote a story for a preseason Longhorn magazine asking one simple question.
Would Chris Whaley be the next great running back at Texas?
The answer to that question is no, but thankfully what he didn't do as a running back didn't close the book on Whaley's football career on the 40 Acres.
Neither did what I thought my lasting image of Whaley would be – watching him slowly matriculate down the field to cover Justin Tucker's pooch kick against Nebraska in 2010, when I mistook Whaley for an offensive lineman.
There have been some bright spots and some definite low lights in the Longhorns' 2009 recruiting class. After all he's been through, Whaley looks like he might end up being one of the few productive players from that class at the end of the day.
Even if he's pushing 300 pounds.
“That's something he and I joke about all the time,” Walters said. “He can get as big as he wants to now.”
Instead of possibly hearing about him being back at home reliving his glory days of long ago in Madisonville, Longhorn fans might be reading about Whaley in the NFL one day in the not too distant future. Mack has compared Whaley to Lamarr Houston, and Whaley said he sees Henry Melton making a living playing on the Chicago Bears defensive line and admires him from afar.
The Melton comparisons were something Whaley once fought. Now he wholeheartedly embraces them.
“The coaches have mentioned it to me,” Whaley said. “I just want to keep working and maybe one day I'll have that opportunity.”
He very well could if he keeps working at his current rate. He'd prove a lot of people wrong if he does, but for now he's only worried about hanging onto his starting job.
When the coaches told Whaley he'd start the Wyoming game, there was no time for reflection or reveling in the self-gratification of having proved a lot of people wrong.
Whaley did the one thing that got him to this point. He went back to work.
“It meant that I need to step up and keep working,” Whaley said. “Just because I'm the starter doesn't mean I can let up and start feeling good about myself.”
When he does stop to smell the roses, he'll realize he's on one heck of a journey that still may have several chapters to be written.
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