Former Texas Longhorns defensive tackle Chris Whaley is finally ready to show off his skills on the football field once again.
A massive knee injury sustained against West Virginia in 2013 that resulted in three torn ligaments and a dislocated knee ended Whaley's college career in Austin and forced him to become an undrafted free agent. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys a little more than a year ago and has been rehabilitating ever since in an effort to break into the rotation this season.
It's been quite the journey for the 6'3, 269-pounder from Madisonville who came to Texas in 2009 as a top-10 running back nationally after gaining 6,174 yards in his high school career while also starring in basketball and track and field.
He redshirted and then spent some time at running back in 2010 before moving to H-back and then defensive end in the spring of 2011. A part-time starter in 2012 who recorded four tackles for loss, Whaley moved to defensive tackle in 2013 and started every game before his injury, breaking out with five tackles for loss and two sacks.
Those numbers don't tell the whole tale, however, as he intercepted a pass he returned for a huge touchdown in the upset of Oklahoma and recovered two fumbles, including one against Kansas that he returned for another touchdown. In doing so he became the first Texas defensive lineman to return an interception and a fumble for a touchdown in the same season.
Now he's trying to take advantage of a big opportunity on a rebuilt Cowboys defensive line that used 34 players in 2013 and 2014 combined.
"I feel like a rookie," Whaley said on Saturday. "I didn't play any all last year, so I know I have to prove myself and show what I can do."
Except Whaley is only a rookie in the sense that he's never stepped onto the AT&T Stadium field in pads on a Sunday wearing that blue star -- he's had a chance to watch the speed of practice, to work with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to learn the intricacies of the NFL game.
"With Coach Marinelli, everything is hard. He wants to push you to be great," Whaley said. "Just sitting in the room with him and how he coaches those guys, I learned that you've got to come out and go hard every day with Marinelli. He demands perfection."
Since the Cowboys declined to exercise the three-year option on fellow former Longhorn Henry Melton, the other notable Texas player to grow into a defensive tackle after coming to Austin as a running back, the leading returning sack artist at defensive tackle is Tyrone Crawford. The 6'4, 285-pounder started all 16 games and recorded three sacks, making him the primary competition for Whaley.
Overall, the competition is more fierce than it would have been last season, when the team was basically pulling players off the street and then inserting them into the game days later. But that shouldn't bother Whaley, who has already been through so much.
"Me and my brother always talk about how they see something in me, they took the time out to give me a chance to sit out a year and get my knee right," he said. "I'm very thankful for this opportunity, and I can't let them down. I've got to come out and I've got to push and show them that they didn't waste their time."
If his rehabilitation has helped him recover the quickness that made him worthy of Dallas taking a chance on, the former Longhorn should have a chance to challenge Crawford for the starting job at the three-technique defensive tackle position after dropping around 25 pounds since he was a senior at Texas.
The combination of playing for the home-state Cowboys and going through such a long and grueling rehabilitation process ensures that Whaley won't take the opportunity for granted.
"I have to do everything possible to be great," Whaley told the Dallas Morning-News. "That's the mind-set I've got to have."