Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Huskers' Whaley grows into consummate team player
By ERIC OLSON
AP Sports Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Alonzo Whaley is coming off the best game of his erratic career at Nebraska, yet there's a chance he won't be in the starting lineup for Saturday's game at No. 12 Ohio State.
The thought of such a possibility would have sent the old Whaley into a weeklong funk.
The new Whaley shrugs and says he'll be ready whenever his coach calls on him.
"We all have selfishness in us," the linebacker said. "I'm not saying it's easy to say, `Oh, I'll stand on the sideline and cheer my team on.' We all have personal goals. But at the end of the day, it's about what y'all accomplish no matter what. What you accomplish individually will be forgotten, but your team's accomplishment will be remembered."
Point taken. But Whaley's individual play has been remembered for all the wrong and right reasons just this season. Never mind the ups and downs of the past couple years.
Whaley started the first two games but was yanked from the lineup after struggling in pass coverage and missing a bevy of tackles in the Sept. 8 loss at UCLA.
Zaire Anderson took over at weakside linebacker against Arkansas State, and Whaley didn't play a down. Anderson went out with a season-ending knee injury the next week, but Whaley still wasn't part of the plan. That's because the 21st-ranked Huskers opened in its dime package (six defensive backs) against Idaho State. Whaley played only a few snaps, as an experiment at defensive end.
Nebraska was back in its three-linebacker base defense against Wisconsin, and Whaley reintroduced himself in a big way.
The senior from Madisonville, Texas, made a career-high eight tackles, including his first career sack. His biggest play was his last one. He broke through the Badgers' line untouched to swipe the ball away from Montee Ball on a fourth-and-1 near midfield. Safety Harvey Jackson recovered, and Nebraska won 30-27 after trailing by 17 points in the third quarter.
Whaley said he told Jackson before the final snap to watch out for the inside run to Ball, a play the Badgers called repeatedly.
"That backside `A' gap has been opening up and it's mine," Whaley said, recalling his chat with Jackson. "All I'm thinking is to be aggressive and shoot the gap. It paid off, and we got the victory as a team. Not from that one individual play, but as a team."
Now, with the Huskers set to face a dangerous quarterback-run threat in Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Whaley knows the defensive game plan might require more speed to be on the field. If Whaley's snaps are limited, he's OK with that. He told linebackers coach Ross Els as much.
"Let's do what's best for the team, not what's best for me," Whaley said. "If my team is reaching its goals, and I sat out because someone is filling the position I wasn't doing great at, how can you be upset about that?"
Whaley's appreciation for being part of the team grew exponentially after coach Bo Pelini challenged him to prove he truly was committed to being part of it.
Whaley acknowledged that he didn't give his full effort to his academics, and that attitude manifested itself in the way he approached football.
"I thought I could half-do stuff in school," he said. "When I got into the football meeting room, I thought I could just turn it on. It didn't happen, and it started showing. I was too caught up in my ways of `Oh, I can half-do stuff' to even realize it.' "
He played in nine games in 2010, sparingly in most of them. He couldn't figure out what was holding him back.
"Instead of my mind set on how can I fix this, it was more, `Hey, I'm getting screwed,' " he said.
Whaley's attitude adjustment started when Pelini gave him a dose of tough love and left him off the 105-man roster to begin fall practice in 2011.
"It was the best day of my life," Whaley said. "My world has been completely different since."
It's taken time for Whaley to re-establish himself in the linebacker rotation. He played in 13 games last season but didn't make much of an impact.
Pelini said he respects Whaley for how he made the necessary changes in his approach to the game.
"It's good to see him have a game like he did the other night, having success," Pelini said. "He's persevered through a lot of things. He's matured and grown up and really has become a tremendous asset to our program. ... He's become one of the real leaders on our football team."