Thursday, May 9, 2013
Position change shaped Whitley's future
By Sam Khan Jr.
HOUSTON, Texas -- It's the first play of Zach Whitley Jr.'s favorite part of practice on a warm May afternoon in East Houston, and the 2014 linebacker is ready to hit somebody.
The Houston North Shore coaches gather their players together for some full-contact work in the second week of spring football practice. They have the offense and defense compete with best-on-best, first teamers taking on first teamers.
New Alabama commit Zach Whitley Jr., who wants to enroll early, chose The Crimson Tide over Texas and Texas A&M.
And on the first play, Whitley busts through the line of scrimmage, into the backfield and strips the ballcarrier. His teammates pat him on the back and Whitley, fired up, unleashes a yell and claps his hands. He relishes this.
The four-star linebacker, who is ranked ninth in the country among inside linebackers, seems to be an ideal match for the Crimson Tide.
"He is no nonsense," North Shore coach David Aymond said. "He's quiet off the field. We like him a lot on the field because he is very business-like. He's eager to do what he's taught to do."
It's interesting that Whitley has become a defensive stalwart because when he walked through the doors of North Shore in 2010 as a freshman, he was a running back. Aymond's first impression was of a young man with good size who ran physically. But before his sophomore season, the Mustangs were set at running back but needed help at linebacker. So they moved him to that position, and Whitley was more than happy to make the switch.
"He was a physical back," Aymond said. "Not many places would have taken a big running back and put him at linebacker, but we do that here."
The decision might have forever altered Whitley's football future. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound prospect said the coaches left the choice up to him and he obliged.
"I decided to play defense," Whitley said, "because I love the contact."
The rest is history. Whitley has emerged into one of the best linebackers nationally and a true leader on the North Shore team. Each year, Aymond asks for volunteers to speak to the team after practices. Last year during spring football, Whitley was one of the volunteers. Aymond notice other players began to gravitate to Whitley.
"He's eager to do the right thing," Aymond said. "He's coachable. You want to coach him. Eager to work hard and do what his coaches ask him to do. That's the best thing about him. He's a good kid in that way. A hard worker, always on time."
While Whitley does participate in track and field in the offseason, that's about it. He's an all-football, all-the-time type of player.
Whitley had plenty of big-time suitors, including Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. He visited Texas and Texas A&M earlier this year and ventured to Alabama last month for "A-Day." The one thing that stood out to him were the people.
"Everybody, everywhere they love Alabama and love everything about Alabama," Whitley said. "I love being around that type of environment."
And though he talked earlier this year about waiting until his senior season started before narrowing things down and making a decision, Whitley said he pushed his timetable up because he plans to graduate this December. He wants to start his college football career next spring semester.
Currently he's taking extra classes and will take summer school classes to help him fulfill those requirements so that he can get to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in January 2014. But the decision to commit wasn't an easy one.
"It was pretty hard," Whitley said. "I'm a very emotional guy. At the end of the day, I wanted to hear what everyone had to offer. But with the situation that I'm in now, I'm trying to graduate early and get out of high school. I just wanted to make my decision and settle it and be done with it."
It has been all about hard work for Whitley, who said his father, Zach Whitley Sr., has been the biggest influence on his success. But Whitley Jr. knows that this is just the beginning for him.
"He's constantly been on me from day one," Whitley Jr. said of his dad. "Being on me about my grades, telling me to keep pushing that it's going to turn out good in the end. So far it's been good, but it's not the end yet. I still have a lot to do, a lot to finish."