Whitlock credits wrestling for helping football career

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

On a sweltering summer day in Lubbock several years ago, Texas Tech nose tackle Colby Whitlock made a notable early impression on Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill.

"It was hot as fire out there," McNeill said. "Then I looked over at Colby and I noticed he did the workout with a dip of Copenhagen in his mouth the whole time."

Whitlock's oral accompaniment wasn't done to show anything special to coaches or the other high school campers. It's just how he is.

"He went through every drill we had with a dip in his mouth and he didn't flinch or buck any," McNeill said, still amazed at the memory. "I had never seen anybody in 28 years of coaching do that."

Whether it was meant to show his toughness or just that he needed "the pinch that satisfies" as Walt Garrison used to say, Whitlock caught McNeill's attention early on that day. And he's kept building on that with his shows of leverage and technique unique for a player of his size.

Once he arrived at college, the 6-foot-2, 281-pound junior has become a prime producer for the Red Raiders at one of the least glamorous defensive positions.

Like most nose tackles, Whitlock's true value can't be judged by looking at the statistical sheet. But he did help control the middle of the line last season, notching 26 tackles and making 39 total stops for a Texas Tech defense that was an early-season revelation. Their development helped spark the Red Raiders' landmark 11-2 season, earning a share of the school's first Big 12 South Division title.

And that could only be his starting point. Whitlock is poised to become one of the conference's top defensive performers with a rapidly improving group that returns seven starters from last season

"Everybody thinks that this will be a rebuilding year, but we're ready to come back out and play," Whitlock said. "Even in the Big 12 South, we feel like we can play with anybody. I think we'll be a good defense and just kind of pick up where we left off last season. I'm excited about the season coming up."

Whitlock came to Texas Tech after playing high school football in Noble, Okla., located only a couple of long touchdown passes away from Memorial Stadium in Norman.

But Whitlock was more widely known as a wrestler than a football player after earning two state championships during his high school career. His football recruiting was almost an afterthought, although McNeill convinced him to come to the High Plains by visiting him on six-straight weekly visits.

That wrestling career helped prepare him for his career at a nose tackle, where he is in constant hand-to-hand combat with opposing linemen.

His straight-ahead shows of power have become legendary among his Red Raider teammates.

"You catch a lot of double teams as a nose tackle and sometimes you're tying people up and won't make many plays," Whitlock said. "Going from wrestling to football, I think it really helps you because of your work on leverage and your footwork. It's also one of the most mentally tough sports and I think it's prepared me for all that I'm doing in football, now."

But like the rest of the team, Whitlock appeared to hit a wall late last season.

The Red Raiders struggled late in the season, allowing averages of 520 yards and 46.7 points per game during a final three-game skid that included losses against Oklahoma and Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl.

Tech's bowl game remains baffling to Whitlock, who still is at a loss to explain what happened after the Red Raiders squandered an early 14-point lead in a 47-34 defeat.

"It does kind of leave a bad taste in your mouth and really gives us a motivational push heading into the season," Whitlock said. "After those two games, I want to take everything back and get back playing as quickly as we can. It was a really ending to what had been a great season."

The Red Raiders have used the Mississippi loss throughout the winter to provide motivation for spring practice and a strong 2009 season.

"Honestly, I've watched the game film several times and I still can't explain what happened," Whitlock said. "I know it was hard to take a couple of weeks off and get back after what we wanted to do by getting back in the swing of things. I don't want to use it as an excuse. But it just didn't look like us."

Most observers are expecting the Red Raiders to take a step back from their championship season after losing key offensive weapons like Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, Shannon Woods and Louis Vasquez. But with the strong returning defensive core, Whitlock said the Red Raiders defense is gearing up to help lead the team this season.

"Since I've been here, people have said things about our defense, but we feel like we're really growing and improving," Whitlock said. "Our system works more than most people realize and we're looking forward to showing what we can do."

After his high-school wrestling career, Whitlock still avidly follows wrestling and other combat sports. He's kidded with his father about starting a career in mixed martial arts after his football career concludes.

"If things don't work out for me, I've told him I'm going to the UFC," Whitlock said. "I'm not sure what my gimmick would be. But before I think about that, I've still got some football left to play."