By Greg Ford
Nikita Whitlock has enjoyed gridiron success wherever he’s played.
During his stint at Wylie, Whitlock was arguably the state’s top defensive player in 2008, when he anchored a unit that propelled the Pirates to an appearance in the Class 5A state championship.
During the last four years, Whitlock, an undersized defensive lineman playing in Div. I college football, was a top-level performer at Wake Forest, where he earned first-team, All-Atlantic Conference honors as a senior.
Now, the former Pirate standout aims to succeed at the sport’s highest level: the National Football League.
This past weekend, Whitlock, along with dozens of other rookies and veterans reported to the Cincinnati Bengals’ training camp. About a month and a half from now, Whitlock, who’s making the switch from defensive lineman to fullback, hopes to be one of the more than 40 players on the Bengals’ active roster.
“I think his opportunity is going to be a very realistic one,” said Wylie head football coach Bill Howard. “Nikita is a football player. He is an overachiever. He is one of those guys who is going to work hard, and he has the God-given talent to make plays. There were many teams who were interested in him. Everybody wishes he would have gotten drafted, but as soon as the draft day was over, right then Cincinnati called. He had other people who were calling him, but Cincinnati got there first.”
In the Bengals, Whitlock joins a team that’s been a playoff contender the last three seasons, losing in the opening round each time.
They and their fans hope that changes in 2014, and, perhaps, Whitlock could play a large role in making that occur. It just depends how quickly he adjusts to his fullback duties, which will include blocking and catching passes, two things the 250-pound Whitlock has doesn’t much of the last several seasons.
“Catching balls is something that I’ve never done,” Whitlock said. “Learning routes and things like that.”
He added, “That’s so hard to simulate (blocking) without the pads. Even when we in OTAs (Orgainzed Team Activities), a lot of it was ‘do the best you can without hurting anybody.’ … It’s really going to come down when we get the pads on as to whether it’s going to come naturally to me or not. A lot of coaches who I have talked to … (they) say a lot of fullback blocking is ‘want to.’”
Howard doesn’t believe making the switch will be that difficult. The big question is whether the Bengals give him a fair shot.
“In high school, we would probably played him at fullback, too, but he was so dominant of defense, we didn’t want to take anything away. Plus, we needed him on defense,” he said.
Howard added, “The one thing a lot of people don’t understand is that he was one of the most feared defensive lineman in the ACC, basically because (he is) relentless, and I think he’ll take that to the offensive side, where he will be a relentless blocker. I think he will be relentless on his pass routes and when he carries the ball.”
Keeping Whitlock on the defensive side during high school made life easier for coordinator Joe Lepsis, now the head football coach at Wylie East.
“What I tell everybody about him is that he is hands down the best athlete, best football player that I have ever been around or seen,” Lepsis said.
He added, “He’s got something that comes once every 40-50 years in coaching. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think you can coach it.”
At one point Lepsis said his brother Matt, then a member of the Denver Broncos, watched Whitlock play and told him Whitlock was the best football player he’s ever seen.
“I think Wylie has prepared me well. I come back and train here every year. I like the training program,” Whitlock said. “Coach Howard has done a good job of mentoring me, and when I was here coach Lepsis and those guys were here. Coach (Brad) Phelps was the best defensive line coach I ever had. They did a lot for me.”
The Pirates prepped him well enough for the Demon Deacons to offer him a scholarship. Initially, Whitlock redshirted during his freshman season.
There also was talk of moving him to linebacker, considering that he was too undersized, at least on paper, to play along the defensive front. However, it was soon apparent Whitlock belonged in a three-point stance and in the middle of the line.
Over the course of four seasons, Whitlock, who often faced off with opponents 40-50 pounds heavier than he, recorded 241 tackles and 18.5 sacks. Forty nine of those tackles were for losses.
“Nikita is one of those guys that everybody likes to coach,” Howard said. “He’s fun and is going to work hard. Right now, the thing is will he get a fair opportunity because of his size. Every time that Nikita has gotten a fair opportunity, he has proven he is plenty big enough to play at every level.”
Whitlock gets his first real taste of NFL competition Aug. 7, when the Bengals travel to Kansas City for a preseason contest with the Chiefs.
It’ll be there where Whitlock and his fellow rookies will be exposed to the NFL’s speed and ferocity. For Whitlock, once he gets the ball in his hands, it’ll be the opening act his transition from being the pursuer to the pursued.
“When I get the ball, all bets are off,” he said. “It’s backyard football. Right now, I feel like my role with the Bengals is to be the lead blocker. I think I will touch the ball few times a game, but my No. 1 goal is to block. When I get the ball, it’s just extra.”