The 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive tackle slinked back in coverage and, much to the chagrin of Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell, plucked his pass out the air for an interception.
But Chris Whaley didn’t stop there. That’s when his natural instincts kicked in. With the ball high and tight, Whaley streaked toward the goal line, belly bouncing along the way. The former running back wouldn’t be stopped even with Oklahoma defenders charging towards him — he doesn’t get the chance to score often.
“When I saw the quarterback, I wasn’t going to be denied,” Whaley said. “I wasn’t going to let him stop me.”
Whaley’s score against Oklahoma was the first of his Longhorns career. An odd statistic when you consider Whaley entered the 40 Acres as a four-star recruit at running back, according to rivals.com. In high school, a much slimmer Whaley — roll free at 218 pounds — rushed for over 6,000 yards and accumulated 79 touchdowns.
His future looked bright in the backfield at Texas. But there was one problem when he got to Texas; Whaley kept putting weight on his frame. With the readily available supply of food and the constant workout regimen his weight ballooned.
So much so that Texas’ weight and strength coach Jeff Madden would joke with Whaley about switching to the defensive side of the ball. Whaley brushed off the suggestion at first. But as his weight continued to spike and the Longhorns backfield became more crowded with the addition of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, he realized making the switch was in his, and the team’s, best interest.
“I think he was willing to do whatever was needed for the best of the team,” said senior cornerback Carrington Byndom.
It was a selfless move. Many players would have persisted at their original spot, taking a scholarship away from a position instead of assisting one in need. But Whaley’s pride didn’t get in the way, and the move is paying dividends for him three years later.
The transition wasn’t easy. Whaley had to change his mindset from avoiding contact to embracing it, and the technical aspect of reading blocks and footwork took some adjusting too. But eventually, he learned to appreciate the switch. After all, it’s better to deliver blows than to receive them.
Whaley’s interception return for a touchdown was the senior’s coming-out party, but opposing offensive lines have noticed him for a while. Whaley is a presence on the interior of the line, a rare blend of girth and burst that allows him to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Despite eating up blockers at defensive tackle, Whaley’s accumulated five tackles for loss, two sacks and 24 tackles in seven games this season.
It’s easy to compare Whaley to a former Texas running back turned defensive tackle, Pro Bowler Henry Melton. Melton, now a defensive end for the Chicago Bears, made the same switch as Whaley, and serves as Whaley’s ideal blueprint as he eyes the NFL.
Whaley, despite his aggressive, energy-heavy personality on the field, seems almost docile off it. He’s reserved, respectful and always answers questions with a nod of the head and a “yes sir.” But most noticeably, he genuinely cares about the final result. After losses Whaley borders on tears, and after wins he bounds around the field with unbridled joy. These traits have transformed a usually reserved Whaley into a natural team leader.
“He’s the general of our defense,” Reed said. “He helps us get lined up, he takes it into our hands when we mess up and he just makes sure our practices are straightened up. He’s just a great leader.”
Whaley doesn’t score as frequently, and he spends considerably more on food, but he’s still making people miss. Only now, after Whaley finishes his move, he gets to hit someone after.