When Chris Whaley toppled after a West Virginia player collided with his knee, Texas fans held their breath in collection.
When the cart came out to remove Whaley from the field, people had to think the worst.
But when Whaley, a former running back who transformed his entire career through hard work and perseverance, started to cry as the cart steered him off the field, it sent a collective shudder through Longhorn Nation.
There’s nothing worse than seeing a player’s season end on a seemingly innocent play. And for it to happen to someone with a personality like Whaley’s, it’s crushing.
“It was devastating for me,” junior defensive tackle Desmond Jackson, who replaced Whaley, said. “It hit my heart once I saw him get carted off and he was crying.”
This came from the player who’s starting job Whaley snagged at the beginning of the season, and the sentiment is shared throughout the team. The injury could not have happened to a more beloved player. He’s a team leader and the emotional cornerstone of the defense.
It’s tough to fully describe the repercussions of Whaley’s loss emotionally, but that’s not even taking into consideration Whaley’s significant on-field production. The senior is the anchor of the Longhorns’ defensive line, providing a quicker, agile complement to sophomore Malcom Brown at defensive tackle. Brown eats up blockers with his 6-foot-4, 305-pound frame, providing Whaley, with his running back-like quickness, one-on-one opportunities to rush the passer.
Whaley’s thrived in his role. In nine games, he totaled 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception and a pair of memorable touchdowns. These are numbers not easily duplicated, even for a player as experienced as Jackson. The junior started 11 games last season, and showed flashes of brilliance against West Virginia last week with a career-high two sacks.
He’s a capable replacement, but not ideal. Jackson, who is nicknamed “Tank” for a reason, is a traditional nose tackle, but will be forced to play out of position next to Brown. This may not seem like a huge issue. Each defensive lineman is cross-trained, but it will hinder the Longhorns’ strongest unit — something that could be devastating for a defense that’s struggled this season and is about to enter a stretch against three of the most potent offenses in the FBS.
Whaley, like Johnathan Gray, who is also out for the season following the West Virginia game, will be with the team constantly for the remainder of the season. Their leadership will still be important, but it’s not nearly as effective on the bench as it would be in the fourth quarter after making a huge sack.
Whaley is now rolling around campus on a scooter, and it’s easy to envision him delivering impassioned speeches to his teammates from a low vantage point. But no speech can plug the hole his 6-foot-3, 295-pound frame creates on the defensive line.