One of those players being counted on for more production, junior tackle Jeffrey Whitaker, says he likes what he is seeing from the guys on the front four so far in their offseason workouts. Whitaker predicts the defensive front will be improved for the 2012 season.
The system that new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is putting into place is something that the junior says he especially likes. "No disrespect to the old defense, but I love this better because it's simplified," he says.
"You're going to put your hand in the dirt, it's going to be ‘mano a mano' and you're going to have to beat him. This defense goes back to how football is supposed to be played--defensive linemen have to whoop offensive linemen to go hit the ball carrier."
The Warner Robins, Ga., native adds that the more aggressive, attacking style of play should take the Tigers' front four to a new level of production.
With VanGorder's defensive style and what should be improved depth on the front four, the Tigers are expected to have a stronger playing rotation at tackle and end than they did last season. Whitaker says that will help be a major benefit to the defense as a whole.
"If I'm whooping on this guy, they (the offensive linemen) don't rotate," he says. "If it's time for me to take a break and a fresh body like Angelo Blackson comes in and whoops up on him, by the fourth quarter it's going to be lights out for us. He's not going to want any more.
"We need the rotation just to stay healthy with the season," Whitaker adds. "Playing the SEC, that's one thing we have to have is rotation of the defensive line."
Whitaker says the young players, like Blackson, are improving substantially and that makes sense because experience is such an important factor. "Your head isn't going a million miles per hour, you kind of know what's going on, how to play blocks and this and that," he points out. "You kind of know how to get yourself into shape and the shape you need to be in, and how important the offseason is. It should be night and day, and that's the expectation for them."
Whitaker, who played at around 320 pounds last season, has dropped weight to improve his quickness. He notes that he weighed in at 301 this week. He says as long as he stays at 305 or less he is right where he needs to be. "That'll just give me leeway if I want to go to Zaxby's or something like that," he jokes about his current weight.
While Whitaker has been losing weight, his friend and fellow defensive lineman, Corey Lemonier, is trying to gain weight during the offseason. Lemonier, an All-SEC end last season, is having success. The junior is up to 247 pounds. Whitaker says that Lemonier is a "different eater" and likes foods like Rice and sushi. "Man, I'm country. Give me some fried chicken, macaroni, greens, I'll weigh in and we'll talk about it later. That is how it is with me."
Whitaker is shown in a spring practice.
Whitaker started in all 13 games of the 2011 season, recording 25 tackles, including two for a loss. He had three QB hurries with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Although his body is smaller this year his expectations for his on the field performance are bigger.
The defensive tackle remembers that Tracy Rocker, the former AU coach who recruited him to play for the Tigers, told Whitaker that he and the other defensive linemen he came in with that they would have their ups and downs as freshmen and sophomores, but by the time they were juniors they would be prepared to become difference-makers for the team.
"Sophomore year is going to be a little bump in the road--that is exactly what he said," Whitaker remembers. "He said, ‘Man, your junior year is go to be wow.' That is the word he used for it. You look around and you look at Corey, Dee Ford and Nosa (Eguae) and me and Ken (Kenneth Carter), you're just going, ‘Wow, this could be pretty special.' That is why this point where we are at right now we are working pretty hard in training."
While formal practices with the coaches won't start until August, the players are doing strength and conditioning workouts with Coach Kevin Yoxall and his staff. Whitaker says the Tigers are being thoroughly "Yoxercized" at this time of year with weight training and running. Additionally, players are getting together with others in their position groups and reviewing what they learned on the field during spring training.
Whitaker notes for the defensive linemen, there isn't a whole lot they can do to work on technique unless they are going full speed with pads on, but the older players can help the younger ones with questions about alignments and assignments as well as footwork and other techniques. The junior adds the goal for the voluntary workouts is to get all the players to the point that when the pads go on later this summer "everything will be second nature."