Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Whalen making the most of his opportunity
By Kevin Gemmell
Walk-on guys always play with a chip on their shoulders -- but a lot of them lose it after they earn their scholarship. Not Griff Whalen. He plays the game like he eternally has something to prove.
Even when the senior was awarded his scholarship following his sophomore year in 2009, he continued to play with the attitude that he could be cut at any moment.
"It meant a lot and I felt like I had to work harder than the guys who were already on scholarship," said the wide receiver from Sylvania, Ohio. "But I don't think getting it changed me. I think I would play this way regardless of that."
Whalen, generously listed at 6-foor-1, 193 pounds, is the type of player a team needs to take the next step into national prominence. Not for what he does on the stat book. But for all the things he does that aren't measurable.
Former walk-on Griff Whalen had a career game against Colorado on Saturday.
A quarterback and defensive back coming out of high school, Whalen played position carousal when he arrived on the The Farm. Also a standout high school lacrosse player, he was tried out at quarterback, running back and defensive back. But he found his calling as a wide receiver.
"I think we knew it was a perfect fit for him because of how smooth he is," said defensive back Johnson Bademosi, who has had to cover Whalen more than a couple of times in practice. "He's a hard worker. He runs great routes ... he's a competitor. I think he's comparable to some of the best receivers in the conference."
Whalen's not the fastest guy on the team. He's not the biggest. But he'll do everything asked of him and more. He'll block downfield and play faster than his scouting report indicates. "Steady Eddie" as coach David Shaw likes to call him. He'll sacrifice his body for the betterment of the team. He appreciates the position he's been put in and will be damned if he's going to let his coaches or his teammates down.
That's how you earn playing time as a walk-on true freshman.
"A lot of walk-ons that come here are highly recruited by the Ivys and would have had a chance to be really, really good in the Ivys," said Shaw. "Griff is one of those guys. His highlight tape was phenomenal coming out of high school. But the size-speed deal, he wasn't as big or as fast as other guys getting a scholarship ... when he got on the field, he showed what we'd seen on film that he had the ability to play."
Saturday against Colorado, Whalen had the breakout game of his career -- catching four balls for 92 yards and a touchdown. He made a fantastic grab on a third-and-26 that went for 27-yards down to the Colorado 1-yard line. The next play, Jeremy Stewart scored. Wouldn't have happened without Whalen.
His first touchdown of the season was a 30-yard pass. He cut inside on a slant pattern and Andrew Luck delivered a 15-yard strike. Whalen then juked two defenders and dragged a third into the end zone, taking it the remaining 15 yards on his own.
"I never thought he was too small," Shaw said. "Crazy thing about the time I spent in the NFL, you see some guys like Calvin Johnson and think 'oh my gosh.' Then turn around and right next to him is Wes Welker. At the Pro Bowl. Good is good. There are guys that are diminutive in size that can make good plays ... size is what it is. But it's all about the production on the field."
That production isn't always measurable. Whalen is a fantastic blocker. A lot of routes call for him to be a decoy to pull a safety or defensive back out of an area where a tight end awaits.
"We talk about it all the time," Whalen said. "You can't play here if you can't play without the ball. That's something I worked hard on in the offseason. We all take a lot of pride in playing without the ball and blocking downfield."
As far as the statistical results go, Whalen has upped his game in the past two weeks. In the first three games, Luck targeted Whalen 12 times, but he had just six catches. In the past two games, Whalen has been targeted eight times and has seven catches.
Luck, who has been roommates with Whalen the last three years, said an off-the-field relationship has nothing to do with on-field chemistry.
"When you leave the building, sometimes you don't want to talk [about football]," Luck said. "I don't want to be cheesy and say it makes all the difference, because I don't think it really does ... I don't know if there is any special thing going on.
"I just have to listen to him more than anybody else."
Considering the way Luck distributes the ball -- 44 percent to wide receivers, 31 percent to tight ends and 24 percent to backs ( 1 percent undefined) -- Whalen knows there aren't going to be a ton of opportunities to make plays.
"We're fortunate that our whole team gets along really well and no one is jealous," Whalen said. "We're all pretty selfless and we do whatever it takes to win. You never know how many touches you're going to get per game. And when you do, you have to make the most of whatever you get."