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Finally healthy, Texas WR Jordan Whittington has rediscovered his love for the game

For the first time since Whittington was a sophomore in high school, he’s fully healthy and shining for the Longhorns with and without the ball.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Forget former head coach Tom Herman’s credo for skill position players to always celebrate with offensive linemen first — Texas Longhorns junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington had a different, long awaited-celebratory partner in the south end zone during the second quarter at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium against the Iowa State Cyclones.

And that partner was even bigger than the big uglies Texas sends out into the offensive trenches. That partner was Bevo XV, all 1,700 pounds of him.

Turns out, Whittington believes he has a connection with the big steer, having shared a conversation with Bevo before the game predicting his first touchdown this season.

Heading to the Texas sideline after sharing that post-touchdown moment with Bevo, Whittington was positively levitating the whole way.

After all, it took almost 26 quarters for Whittington to finally find the end zone after a half-season plus of providing a steady presence in the passing game while doing the dirty work on the perimeter setting up touchdowns and other assorted big plays for his teammates.

So after Whittington caught that five-yard touchdown on a slant to put Texas up 14-7 with 13 seconds remaining in the half, the journey to Bevo’s corral was a short and swift one, belying the winding injury journey of more five and a half years that Whittington took to reach that joyful celebration.

Four and a half years ago, Whittington was a two-way standout at Cuero and a consensus five-star prospect ranked as the nation’s No. 4 wide receiver, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. On March 13, 2018, Whittington provided Herman a huge pledge, choosing Texas over Florida, Texas A&M, and UCLA, among many others.

The injury struggles had started the year before, however, when Whittington injured his groin running track and had his first hernia surgery. Trying to play in the state 7on7 tournament, Whittington felt the pain return, but during his senior season, he was healthy enough to lead Cuero to a 4A state title with a recording-setting performance that featured 377 total yards, six touchdowns, and 11 tackles.

After enrolling early on the Forty Acres, Whittington moved from wide receiver to running back and quickly secured praise for his natural ability to play the position, eventually earning the backup role to Keaontay Ingram, who said of Whittington, “He’s going to be the real deal.”

But the groin injury resurfaced for Whittington in the first half of his collegiate debut against Louisiana Tech. Initially, he was expected to miss four to six weeks after having another hernia surgery performed by a top specialist in Philadelphia, exacerbating the dire injury conditions for Texas at running back that had already forced Roschon Johnson to make his fortuitous position change from quarterback.

The initial timetable proved incorrect as Whittington’s second hernia surgery gave way to a third in December of 2019 — the Cuero product finished his freshman season with the single appearance that netted two catches for 17 yards before leaving the game.

Back at wide receiver in 2020, Whittington suffered a meniscus tear in the season opener against UTEP that required surgery and kept him out for the next two games. Upon returning in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma, the 6’1, 205-pounder got off to a fast start with 10 catches for 65 yards before suffering a soft-tissue abdominal injury that caused him to miss three more games. In the final three 2020 appearances for Whittington, he managed only nine catches for 95 yards.

In Whittington’s first season under head coach Steve Sarkisian, the season opener against Louisiana marked Whittington’s first 100-yard receiving performance as he totaled seven catches for 113 yards and his first career receiving touchdown. Becoming a reliable target on third down, Whittington added two more touchdown catches among 359 total receiving yards before suffering another injury against the Sooners — this time a broken clavicle sustained while trying to adjust to a poor throw by quarterback Casey Thompson, who had just suffered the thumb injury that lingered until the 2021 season thudded to a 5-7 close.

Whittington missed four games and struggled to produce when he returned with two catches for 18 yards over the final two games, all while dealing with the loss of his father.

“He just meant a lot to me,” Whittington said. “I had a rough two months where I got hurt and I lost my dad. Nothing was going my way.”

But now, with 28 receptions for 381 yards and the touchdown against the Cyclones, Whittington is currently the team’s second-leading receiving in yardage and tied for second in catches with sophomore tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. On third down, all six of his catches have resulted in conversions, in addition to his stellar, blue-collar work as a blocker.

Having finally remained healthy past the Oklahoma game, Whittington is putting together his most complete season since 2016 when he was a a sophomore in high school. More importantly, he’s playing the game with the unbridled joy of someone who knows all too well how quickly injuries can take it all away.

“I fell in love with the game again, and I don’t take it for granted,” Whittington said. “Any play could be your last play, so I just try to take advantage of every opportunity (I) get.”

Whittington celebrated his birthday on the field following the West Virginia game. He carried and planted the big white Texas flag with the big burnt orange logo after the Longhorns dealt the Sooners the Red River Shutout. He made his way over to his good friend Bevo after scoring the season’s first touchdown.

“I think a guy like Jordan to me is a guy who has been riddled by the injury bug his entire career and came in with so many high hopes and aspirations and expectations,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “That he finally feel so good and feels so healthy and so dialed into who we are, what we’re about, what our culture is, what our schemes are, that I think he really enjoys playing football, and that’s what it should be.”

So for Whittington’s Texas teammates, he’s more than just a player who runs routes with precision, catches the ball with strong fundamentals, and blocks with every ounce of his strength. Whittington is an example to his teammates of the emotion that Sarkisian wants every player to channel on the field.

“It’s clear to see the guy or the guys that play for the love of the game and I think Jordan Whittington loves playing college football at the University of Texas,” Sarkisian said. “And it shows him every snap — he plays every snap like, this might be my last one.”

Through all the injuries and the setbacks and what must have felt like never-ending rehab, Whittington rediscovered his health and his love for the game. Oh yeah, and a special connection with a beloved steer.