Whittaker not yet fully recovered from knee injury but hoping to continue success at next level

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in an eight-part series about Longhorns hoping to be drafted into the NFL.

There was a lot to like about last season. Texas won three more games than it did the year before, including a bowl game, and signed another top-five recruiting class. But Fozzy Whittaker’s knee injury was probably the lowest point.

Whittaker, a senior running back, had established himself as a threat out of the “Wild” formation and had become the first player in school history to return kickoffs 100 yards for a touchdown in back-to-back games. He led the country with 42.4 yards per kick return when he tore his ACL in Columbia against Missouri, effectively ending his college football career.

“You lose part of your heart, part of the soul of this team. You can’t replace that,” said Longhorns defensive coordinator Manny Diaz after the devastating injury. “From the football side, you lose a guy that can score on any play. His tape says that anywhere on the field he can go the distance. There’s only so many of those guys in the country.”

Whittaker has no problems walking but still can’t run. He’s still hoping that he can realize his initial goal of being fully recovered six months after having surgery to repair his knee, which took place in January. Whittaker said he would like to participate in an NFL training camp but knows there’s a chance that he might not be good to go in time for Week One. If he goes undrafted, Whittaker plans on pursuing a deal as an undrafted free agent.

Whittaker hasn’t worked out for or interviewed with any NFL teams, but the fact that he was invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February despite only being able to participate in the bench press is encouraging.

“I may or may not [get drafted],” Whittaker said. “I’m one of those people on the bubble where I’m just waiting to see what will happen on draft day.”

The way Whittaker made his mark in his final season at Texas should serve him well at the professional level. The roles that third-down tailbacks and special team stalwarts play are usually reserved for young players selected in the later rounds of the NFL Draft or even those signed as undrafted free agents. Fortunately for Whittaker, that’s exactly what he did.

“Not too many teams in the NFL right now focus on having one specific tailback for first and third down,” said Whittaker. “So, being able to play on third down and being able to play in the Wildcat formation, will be able to help change the pace up. On top of that, not everybody returns kicks. Being able to do that helps me get on the field.”

Whittaker will graduate in May with a master’s degree in kinesiology and spent some of this spring semester as an intern as a member of the football operations team. One of the projects Whittaker helped out with during that internship was the unveiling of Ricky Williams’ statue before the Orange-White spring game earlier this month.

“It was a real-eye opener,” Whittaker said. “As a football player and as an athlete, we’re just focused on playing the game. You don’t really put too much thought into what needs to happen for everything else to fall into place.”

Texas may not have a running back as good as the Heisman Trophy-winning Williams but having guys like Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron isn’t too bad, either. Each turned in multiple 100-yard efforts during their freshman year this past season and, along with highly-touted incoming freshman Johnathan Gray, will be a part of a loaded Longhorns backfield.

“The sky’s the limit with those guys,” said Whittaker. “I saw a lot more consistency. They’ve grasped the playbook already, compared to when they were freshmen still trying to learn it. I can see them getting better each week.”

Another running back that Whittaker has seen improvement in is Jeremy Hills, a senior running back who he believes will take over for him in the Wild formation. There’s been a lot of speculation as to who will replace Whittaker in that role and many names thrown out there, but Whittaker sees a lot of potential in Hills.

“Jeremy Hills has done a great job,” Whittaker said. “He’s the one that has actually kind of taken on my role as the critical third-down back and the Wild formation person. He’s doing a great job with that and he’s done a great job this whole spring.”

Hills, Brown and Bergeron could very well go on to have a great year in 2012, when Whittaker says Texas can seriously contend for a national championship. But Texas will miss Whittaker. He did anything and everything he was asked to do, whether it was carrying the ball as a tailback, mentoring fellow tailbacks like Brown and Bergeron, extending drives with third-down conversions out of the Wild formation, changing the game as a kick returner or even helping arrange the ceremony for Williams’ statue unveiling.

“Fozzy epitomizes what we all want in college student athletes,” said Texas head coach Mack Brown. “He’s a person that has given a lot more to Texas than he’s gotten back. He’ll fight for a chance to play in the NFL but he’ll have a great career at something.” 

Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: Fozzy looks to shake injuries in NFL