Chris Whaley's move to DT pays off

AUSTIN, Texas -- The idea grew right along with Chris Whaley.

At 250 pounds, he was still a running back. It was, after all, where he had always been. Well, almost always.

"My freshman year [in high school] I played free safety. I started like the first five games," the Texas junior said. "[The] last four [games] I played running back and I didn't play defense after that.''

At 260, the not-so-subtle hints started.

"You ready to move to defense?" Texas strength coach Jeff Madden would say.

"I would just laugh it off," Whaley said.

At 270, the jokes were done. So too was the idea that Whaley could be a running back at Texas.

"One day [Madden] called me and asked me if I was ready to move to defense," Whaley said. "I told him whatever I could do to help out the team. And that's what I did."

Check that. That's what he is doing. Whaley, who has played running back, fullback, tight end and defense end, was one of Texas' starting defensive tackles in the opener against Wyoming. For those curious, the junior weighed in at 293 and made two tackles, including one for a loss. Not a shock there. Remember, the backfield is familiar ground for Whaley.

"I remember watching him in high school out there at Cameron Yoe High School playing one night," running backs coach Major Applewhite said. "I saw a 6-foot-2, 235-pound running back as a junior and just thinking he is not a miniature schnauzer and he will continue to grow."

It's not as if Texas hadn't seen or done this before. Henry Melton was signed as a running back in 2005. Prior to his junior year the coaching staff moved him to defensive end. Melton was drafted in the fourth round in 2009, signed a four-year, $2.2 million contract with the Bears and is a starting defensive tackle.

"When I first came in a lot of the defense players would say I was just like Henry Melton," Whaley said. "Change from running back to defensive end and now he is making good money. They would always tease me about making the move to defense."

The laughter subsided when the move was made in the spring of 2011. Sure Whaley was raw, bad with his hand placement and not exactly accustom to creating contact but avoiding it. But the footwork and the quick-twitch muscles were there.

Texas coach Mack Brown singled Whaley out in a December 2011 press conference as a guy that had NFL potential. Those were strong words for a backup who had never played a down of defense at Texas.

It also took a strong sense of self as well as self-awareness for Whaley to be confident in the move.

"When you talk about real competitors -- and Chris is a real competitor -- they just want to be on the field," Applewhite said. "I think he saw that his time might be limited or that he might play at tailback, but if he just kind of goes ahead and accepts where his body is going to go just through genetics, he is going to be more of a defensive end or defensive tackle. So I think he welcomed the change, and it has been better for him."

What has made the transition so smooth has been Whaley's demeanor.

"That's a pretty drastic change in job description," defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "And for him to not blink and say, 'Let's go do it' -- that's pretty cool."

It's Whaley's wide-eyed optimism that has ingratiated him with his teammates. Couple that with his work ethic and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the team and that is why Whaley has become one of the team favorites.

"There are certain guys, it seems, like the team roots for, and it seems like our football team roots for Chris Whaley," Diaz said. "Players want to believe in sort of the American dream -- guys who work the hardest and do everything right and care about their teammates get rewarded on the field. They respect the work he's done."

For Whaley the work isn't all done quite yet. There is still some room for growth.

"For some reason I can't get [to 300 pounds]," he said. "I got to 297 then I lost it all."