With Signing Day rapidly approaching and the great majority of the Longhorns' 2009 class already committed, it's time to look at each individual prospect.
Name: Chris Whaley
Position: Running back
Speed: 4.45 40-yard dash
High School: Madisonville
Rating (Rivals): Four out of five
More than anything else, the pure physique of Chris Whaley is impressive. Standing at 6-3 and weighing more than 230 pounds, Whaley has the makeup of a defensive end or linebacker or tight end more than a running back, hence the rampant speculation about whether Whaley will stay at running back in college and leading Rivals to list him as an athlete. More on that later.
His size at the running back position draws comparisons ($) to former Arkansas star running back Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson, and Eddie George (who not Eric Dickerson, too?), though Whaley may be even bigger than McFadden coming out of high school, while McFadden was and is significantly faster, as is Peterson.
Far from being a lanky 6-3, Whaley has the thickness in the lower body of a running back, though not as thick as, say, A&M commit Christine Michael. That bulk helps Whaley punish small opposing defenders, particularly defensive backs, showing little regard for life or limb in running through arm tackles by keeping his thick legs churning after contact. Deploying a stiff arm also aids in his physical play from the running back position and doesn't allow small defenders to wrap him up, but Whaley can only use that stiff arm going in one direction, as he nearly always carries the ball in his right arm.
Not just big and strong, however, Whaley has remarkable speed for his size, running in the mid 4.4s in the 40 and a 10.8 100m as a sophomore. Besides having the speed to take the corner, Whaley also possesses many of the attributes of a good running back, running with patience and vision, while displaying good feet for his size. His production is hard to argue with, as Whaley combined for more than 6,800 rushing yards and 90 touchdowns in his three years on varsity at Madisonville, no small feat, even against sub-par competition. It's not easy to run for nearly 2,000 yards ($) in nine games and score 24 touchdowns on 187 carries against defensive fronts featuring nine or 10 players in the box on every down, as Whaley did as a senior. That insane production twice earned him Player of the Year honors in his district and garnering him first-team All-State honors in 2007, as well as an invite to the 2009 US Army All-American game, where he broke a screen pass for a 46-yard touchdown and gained 24 yards on three carries.
This is a familiar frame with running backs and defensive lineman -- most don't play with the proper pad level. Whaley is no exception, as he perpetuates comparisons to McFadden to running with a nearly straight back most of the time, similar to Adrian Peterson, as well. Those players get away with their lack of fundamentals by making up for failing to run behind their pads with pure speed and power.
Whaley doesn't have the suddenness cutting or accelerating that either McFadden or Peterson have -- basically, he isn't the freakish athlete that those two are, though Whaley is a fine athlete in his own right. Without the ability to generate the same forward momentum as McFadden or Peterson, running with proper pad level becomes even more crucial to collegiate success, as it is much easier to tackle a player running upright than one finishing the play with a lowered shoulder and behind the pads. The good news is that Whaley improved in that respect during his senior season and will help himself greatly at the college level by continuing to show improvement in that area, indicating that's he's aware of his shortcomings and tries to address them.
Upright running poses another problem -- that of leaving the legs vulnerable to hard hits and injuries. Whaley's generally good health at the high school level despite logging major carries speaks to his durability, but he also played against poor competition at tiny Madisonville and suffered a broken right hand ($) towards the end of his senior season that limited him to 68 yards on 19 carries in a bad loss to Navasota in the playoffs. There isn't any mention of Whaley's leaping ability anywhere, but he could try to add the hurdle move to his repertoire to dissuade tacklers from going low on him all the time.
BOB's Bobby Bragg saw some potential issues ($) with Whaley in reviewing game film from his senior season, believing that Whaley will "have to somewhat reinvent himself" to find success in college. Of particular concern is the style of running game Madisonville employed with Whaley -- often running toss sweeps to the outside:
Whaley bounces too many runs outside. There are many times when Whaley could grind out a three or four yard run using his power and falling forward to maximize an inside run, but opts to try and bounce it outside. He had several runs for negative or no gain against a good Rockdale defense that swarmed the football and had the speed to get to the sidelines.
The desire to bounce everything outside wasn't the only problem Bragg saw with Whaley:
On the toss plays when he gets his pads square and downhill, he can be effective as a guy 6-3, 233-pounds running downhill with a full head of steam isn't going to be stopped on the HS level. Where he gets into problems is when the pads aren't turned downhill, but east and west. On those runs, Whaley doesn't possess the quickness and burst to beat defenders to the edge and can look a little stiff at times on change of direction.
As a guy who projects as an inside, downhill runner in college, that propensity to try to break it outside won't work with the Longhorns, especially since the zone blocking scheme is conducive to running backs trying to get outside to make the big play instead of taking a 3-4 yard gain to stay ahead of the chains. The lack of consistency squaring his shoulders will also work against him at the college level.
Whaley also wasn't in great shape coming into fall practice of his junior year, carrying some extra weight. It's not clear why Whaley was out of shape, since he runs track and plays basketball, but he eventually turned that excess weight into muscle, ending the season faster than he was as a sophomore. It may be that Whaley puts on weight easily, which would bode well for a movement to the defensive side of the ball, but not so much for staying at running back.
The Longhorn coaching staff infamously declared recruiting ($) at the running back position for 2009 complete just four days after National Signing Day when Whaley committed. Promising to only take Whaley, Texas passed on Christine Michael and Florida's Trent Richardson, a long-time Longhorn fan who expressed serious interest in the program. Both of those players are more highly-regarded nationally and project as pure running backs at the next level. Given the closure of recruiting at the position after Whaley, the Longhorn coaches seem intent on giving him a shot at running back, otherwise it wouldn't made any sense to have only offered Whaley at the position. Whaley echoed those thoughts ($) after the Army game:
I talked to coach (Major) Applewhite and he said they're not moving me at all. I'm coming to play running back.
Richardson is one of the top handful of running backs in the country, so that speaks for itself. Personally, having watched film of Michael in high school and his performance in the Army All-American game, he seems like a better pure runner than Whaley, with better burst, better lateral quickness, better cutting ability, while still possessing a powerful lower body to break some tackles and pick up yardage after contact. His ability to accelerate quickly from a stand still seems to fit better in the zone blocking scheme the Longhorns employ. Not only that, but passing on Michael lets the Aggies feel like they can actually recruit a little bit -- no reason to let their heads grow -- and could really improve their program.
Lacking elite acceleration, it's hard to imagine that Whaley will work well without a running start in the horizontal running game at Texas. That means one of three things: 1) a chance in blocking scheme and the quarterback going under center more, 2) incorporating the Pistol formation to give all the running backs a head start, or 3) simply moving Whaley to another position, likely linebacker, defensive end, or halfback/tight end. With Cody Johnson entrenched as the short-yardage running back and possessing similar speed, a lower center of gravity, and better pad level, Whaley will have to unseat a handful of running backs in front of him in the rotation and needs to show some serious aptitude for the Texas running scheme to get carries next season.
Offensively, the most intriguing position change for Whaley would be the transition to halfback/tight end. Mitigating that intrigue is the presence of Barrett Matthews, an accomplished blocker and owner of experience at that position. Texas coaches demand execution at a high level and since Whaley will have undoubtedly have a shot at running back, there is little chance that Whaley would be ready to contribute as a halfback/tight end in 2009 even if he made the switch as soon as he gets on campus.
Back to the intrigue of moving Whaley -- playing at halfback would be perfect for installing the Florida shovel triple option, with Whaley as the inside pitch man in the scheme. While not a prolific pass catcher in high school, Whaley does have good hands and some receiving ability that he showed off ($) at the Texas mini-camp last June, which could possibly flourish with a move. The question about Whaley at the halfback/tight end position is his lack of experience blocking, though he was known on the high school level as willing and capable of picking up the blitz, which should almost go without saying at his size. An inability or lack of desire to pick up the blitz with his size would be a major red flag. All in all, with Matthews coming in at the same time and similar projections at the halfback positions, putting Whaley there would waste one of their talents and probably doesn't make much long-term sense.
On the other side of the ball, the Texas defensive coaches are no doubt drooling to get a chance at Whaley, as he has some room on his frame for growth in the weight room, one of the primary reasons there is so much talk about a position change -- working hard at the weights may push Whaley up past the 240-pound range. (It's important to note here that while Whaley played his senior season at around 230, he wanted to get down to 225 ($).) If he enters that territory, linebacker might be the perfect position for him, as he would have excellent speed for that position. Initially, I thought he had enough room on his frame to grow because of his long arms, but looking through the pictures here ($), I don't think he has wide enough shoulders to get into the 250-260 range and play defensive end, though it still might be possible. At that position, the Longhorns have a serious need for a power end, which is why Tevin Mims could seriously compete for playing time there as a true freshman if he can put on 10-15 pounds over the summer, with a move to defensive tackle possibly looming after that.
Of course, the coaches telling Whaley he will play running back makes it necessary and worthwhile to project his skills to the college level. Bobby Bragg highlights well the bad habits developed by Whaley in high school because of the level of talent he faced and the toss sweeps they always ran to him, forcing the need to "reinvent" Whaley as a tough, inside runner. Even with a reinvention to highlight his combination of size, speed, and strength inside, the only running play Texas currently runs that would work well with Whaley is the inside zone, as the outside zone could reinforce Whaley's habit of taking everything outside. The counter was probably the most effective running play Texas ran in 2008 and might work with Whaley since he has good vision and patience.
Getting Whaley the ball while having time to accelerate makes a ton of sense. Chris Ault's Pistol formation looks like the solution to maximize not only Whaley's skills, but also the skills of guys like Cody Johnson and Vondrell McGee. If Texas doesn't run some Pistol formation I will be intensely disappointed but not surprised in the least.
The most likely solution for Davis and company is to run more plays with Colt McCoy under center next season. Going under center has ramifications for the passing game that are best discussed in other forums, but it could help showcase what Whaley does well, while giving the offensive line serious incentive to be nasty. it's common knowledge by now that Mack Brown loves big, powerful backs and a good running game, so I think he's ready to do everything he can to feature Whaley going downhill. Whaley isn't as talented as Beanie Wells, but he does have the same imposing physical stature that makes coaches and fans wonder if smallish cornerbacks and safeties will be able to make first-down or touchdown-saving tackles. Having a physical and, therefore, physical edge on opponents shouldn't be underestimated.
All this speculation attests not only to the intriguing nature of Whaley as a prospect, but also his lack of ideal fit into the current Texas offense, made all the more strange by the promise Texas coaches made to him not to recruit any other running backs. Though there is great depth, if not transcendent talent, at the position currently, the coaches could have felt comfortable with the group as presently constructed, but passed on some serious talent to take Whaley.
That decision will end up being vindicated or universally panned, but everything is pure speculation until the spring game provides some small measure of insight. Most likely is that Longhorn fans will follow the situation closely throughout spring practice and the summer and bemoan the lack of information coming out about his progress, a process that will probably stretch into fall practice and perhaps well into the football season. In other words, hunker down for a long stretch of time without knowing any answers about how and where Chris Whaley will contribute in burnt orange.
Chris Whaley Highlights (via TexasPreps)