Texas Longhorns junior defensive tackle Chris Whaley never expected that he would end up in this position -- playing right above the football, firing off into 300-pound offensive linemen. He always expected to be the one firing into 300-pound defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage, carrying the football in the crook of his arm.
It's better than the alternative, however -- being labeled a bust. As a running back, that's certainly the case, as head coach Mack Brown infamously called him the best running back in the 2009 class, which also included former Alabama back Trent Richardson and Texas A&M's Christine Michael, both stereotypical backs who experienced a great deal of success for their respective programs. In the case, of Michael, still experiencing a great deal of success.
But as a defensive tackle? At that position, Whaley possesses uncommon speed for someone carrying 293 pounds, which he does easily and having lost little speed since his time as a running back. That speed has prompted accolades from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and defensive tackles coach Bo Davis, who has been outspoken in his belief that Whaley is on the way to NFL millions if he can improve at his craft.
Coming out of Madisonville, a small town close to College Station boasting a population of barely more than 4,000 people, Whaley never expected to be in this position. He saw only a brief turn ($) on the defensive side of the ball at his 3A high school:
I played free safety as a freshman, started the first give games there, but I didn't like hitting people. I wanted to carry the ball.
The path to the defensive side of the ball had already been paved by a former Longhorn -- Henry Melton, who also started out at running back before eventually growing into a defensive tackle. It was a comparison that defensive players invoked quickly with Whaley when he arrived on the 40 Acres:
When I first came in a lot of the defensive guys teased me. They said I was just like Henry Melton and I'd get put on defense.
There was rampant speculation that a position change was going to happen, especially after a history of weight issues in high school that bled into his arrival at Texas. Some players just put on weight easily and it was clear by early in his Texas career that he was one of those players. Simple fact -- 6-3, 240-pounders who have trouble staying lean aren't running backs.
Within his first year in the program, he had already been moved to tight end/H-back, despite running backs coach Major Applewhite standing by his Signing Day pledge of keeping Whaley at running back.
Whaley said the former Texas quarterback made sure he got a chance at his high school position:
Coach Applewhite always influenced me to keep working hard. 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.
It just wasn't working. Always an upright runner with a high center of gravity, the increased mass kept Whaley from being able to make anything approaching a sharp cut, a necessity for the position. He made that move to tight end/H-back, but saw little playing time there during his redshirt freshman season in 2010. Buried on the depth chart, there were no strong signs that he would ever contributed at Texas.
Then, eventually spurred by comments from strength and conditioning coach Jeff Madden about joining those same defensive players who had teased him about moving over to defense, Whaley slowly began to accept the idea, all while keeping his work ethic and intensity at a high level, rather than giving up an transferring, an alternative that Whaley said Tuesday he never considered:
When I made my decision to come to UT, it's where I always wanted to be. Even if I didn't play running back, I wasn't going to transfer.
Not every former running back at Texas has taken that approach -- Cayuga product Traylon Shead left the program last fall rather than continue his work at H-back, eventually landing at Navarro College, where he is back at his prep position.
A final comment from Madden seemed to seal the deal for the switch:
He said there was no reason I shouldn't be on the field helping the team. 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.
So Whaley made the leap of faith, despite never being pushed or prodded by the actual coaching staff, moving to defensive end in the spring of 2011 before moving inside shortly thereafter as he continued to gain weight.
In part aided by the encouragement of Davis and the dreams of NFL riches, Whaley has adapted well to a position he never expected to play ($), according to junior linebacker Jordan Hicks:
He's really taken to the defensive line. 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. He's a big asset for our team.
Even Mason Walters has noticed the buy-in from the other side of the football:
He's always had athletic ability. 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 support from teammate Kheeston Randall and Davis helped:
I had Kheeston Randall, he was an upper classman when I first moved over, and he took me in and taught me everything. Coach Davis is a great coach and also taught me how to do everything. So I never felt out of place and always just felt at home.
Coach Bo Davis took me in and treated me the same as the other guys. I get the same amount of reps as the other guys get, and this is such a wonderful opportunity to go over and be able to play.
In particular, Davis implores him to make use of his considerable gifts:
Coach Davis always tells me I have a gift. He tells me to never hold back, and use it.
Insert Spiderman cliche.
Maybe it's just the smell of money at the end of the tunnel, but Whaley is enjoying himself as he tracks down players at his former position on screens or rushing the quarterback on third downs, his two specialties last season:
Just lining up and being able to come off the ball. Being able to chase the ball. It's fun for me.
Maybe it's just the fact that it's fun to be good at something. And though his technique still needs refinement, there's no question that Whaley is good at what he does. Far better than he ever could have been at running back, even if he had stayed in the 240-pound range. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been named the starter at a position that boasts four starting-level players.
The Melton comparisons are no longer a tease, but rather the best-case scenario for Whaley. The achievement of dreams he probably never realized he had until recently:
The coaches have mentioned it to me. I just want to keep working and maybe one day I'll have that opportunity.
He could have accepted the bust label. He could have quit. Transferred. Become more attrition in a class chock-full of it. Instead, Whaley is the starting nose tackle for the University of Texas and is putting himself in a position to continue his career past college.
It's a Hallmark story worthy of a smile. From all indications, Whaley is wearing one these days, even though he's playing on the side of the football he used to hate. Funny thing, life, and the twists and turns it takes us on.