Is Chris Whaley a running back? A tight end? Defensive end?
It's a question pored over ad nauseum on the Longhorn interwebs in the two years since Mack Brown and his staff made the former Madisonville star the one and only running back recruit in the 2009 class, avoiding advances by Florida prepster Trent Richardson and spurning Beaumont West Brook's Christine Michael. Even before an impressive freshman season from Michael, it became clear that the two had forever become intertwined in the minds of Texas fans attempting to understand Brown's promise to Whaley and why the staff decided not to recruit the talented Michael. Unfortunately, the definitive answer on what happened with Michael will probably never be known. But that won't stop the comparisons.
Whaley is Mack's guy. It's the rare strong philosophical statement from Brown, known partly as the consummate CEO of a college football factory -- the Texas head coach seems enamored with the idea of a big, strong running back who can wear teams down. And apparently the emphasis is more on big and strong than running back.
After a redshirt season during which Texas fans were forced to pour over move-in photos of a clearly overweight Whaley and dissect occasional comments from Brown himself, the two open practices afforded the first glimpse at the big running back on the field in uniform.
Then, in the spring game, aided by injuries to every other member of the running back corps save Jeremy Hills, Whaley by receiving 14 carries, five more than Whittaker and six more than Hills, respectively, picking up 70 yards total. The highlight came early -- on his first carry, a 17-yard romp around the right side that ended with a credible effort at steamrolling AJ White, whom Whaley outweighs by 70 pounds. White gamely made the tackle but took some punishment in the process.
Two carries later, Whaley once again found himself on the edge with the early enrollee White and used a stiff-arm to send the smaller player to the ground as the young cornerback showed considerable moxie again to bring down the bruising back. Another carry later in the game saw Whaley hit the hole with authority and lowered pads before regressing to his upright running style several steps down the field, where he was easily taken down.
On the negative side, there's little question at this point that the big back needs two or three steps to reach full speed. The former high school sprinter can cover a significant amount of ground at full speed, but the difficulty is reaching that speed. On at least one counter run from the gun, Whaley's inability to accelerate quickly showed that it will be difficult for him to operate from that environment -- if there are defenders hitting him in the backfield, he just doesn't have much going for him in trying to break out of tackles. There's no suddenness to his game.
Running with ideal pad level is another area of concern, but it appears to be somewhat of a point of emphasis, as he does occasionally seem to remember that the coaches want him running behind his pads, an adjustment that could help him take advantage of his size and make him a more difficult tackle. There's a strong chance, though, that Whaley isn't going to be able to consciously run with lower pad level because it's just not his style.
In traffic, Whaley doesn't seem comfortable, failing to drive his legs with any type of force. While he doesn't exactly go down easily, his high center of gravity and poor pad level combine with his failure to chop his feet to keep him from picking up the yardage after contact that characterizes Cody Johnson. Those failures suggest that Johnson will once again earn the role of short-yardage tailback this season when he recovers from his hamstring injury and puts Whaley in direct competition with Fozzy Whittaker, Jeremy Hills, and Tre' Newton for precious repetitions.
Back now to the first question -- is Whaley truly a running back who can excel at Texas or just another misplaced athlete who faces the potential of wasting several years of eligibility before ultimately finding his a spot at another position? Right now, the results are hardly conclusive, even if some of the anecdotal evidence mentioned above suggests that Whaley doesn't have a lot of the skills that characterize dynamic running backs. Doesn't have most of the skills, that is.
Maybe Brown considers Eddie George dynamic. The staff clearly wants to give him every opportunity to stick at the position, a stubbornness no doubt borne out the positive evaluation by Mack Brown and his offensive staff that led them to forsake other backs in the class in favor of the mammoth Whaley. Remember, this is Mack's guy, his vision of what a power running Texas team looks like.
To a large extent, whether Whaley sticks at running back may be determined by his conditioning. After the scrimmage, Brown noted that Whaley is currently tipping the scales at a hefty 260 pounds. Brown said that the coaching staff wants Whaley to drop 25 pounds, clearly an effort to help his first and second-step explosiveness and allow him to make sharper cuts. So here's another question -- why is Whaley still so overweight after spending almost a year now in the Texas program?
A certain measure of blame falls on the Texas strength and conditioning program, but a lot of it falls on Whaley himself -- it appears that the battle with his weight could be serious enough to keep him from playing running back. If Whaley truly wants to stay at the position and have the rock in his hands, he needs to make his conditioning a top priority.
The 12 carries in the spring game are not enough to judge Whaley because the conditioning issues still persist to such a degree. Figure that if Whaley comes into fall camp in poor shape again and can't maximize his explosiveness, the clock begins seriously ticking on his time at the position. For Whaley, the tales of Henry Melton and John Chiles provide a cautionary note on how quickly a decision must be reached -- both wasted two full seasons in the program before making their position changes, then suffered through yearlong adjustment periods.
Perhaps the question then isn't whether Whaley is a pure running back or not because he certainly has the talent to make an impact at the position if he can work on his body lean and get himself into better condition. The major question is if Whaley can commit himself to working himself into top condition in order to turn his inconsistent production in practice into consistent results on the field. If he wants to be 260 pounds, he can be a 260-pound H-back.
Mack Brown still believes there is a possibility that Whaley is some diamond in the rough at running back and he won't be changing positions until he proves Brown wrong. After all, Brown can be stubborn at times and has a lot of investment into Whaley already, having made him the guy in his vision of a Texas running game built around power football.
Wherefore, then, Mack's guy? Your move.