A year ago, Nikita Whitlock couldn’t crack an NFL roster. Now the Giants have him pulling triple duty at fullback, nose tackle and special teams. Here’s how he’s adapting on the fly and trying to catch his breath
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — After practice on Wednesday, Nikita Whitlock sat in front of his locker at the Giants’ practice facility, stealing a few minutes for some film study on his tablet. He’d just spent the last two hours practicing as a fullback, bulldozing holes for Rashad Jennings & Co. in the backfield. Now it was time to study pass-rushing cut-ups for this week’s opponent, the Saints. There aren’t many two-way players in the NFL these days, but Whitlock, a 24-year-old who couldn’t stick on an NFL roster last fall, is pulling double duty for the Giants. Whitlock won the Giants’ fullback job in training camp, but when the team’s pass rush lagged early in the season, the coaches came up with an idea: put in Whitlock, a nose tackle at Wake Forest, to rush the passer on a handful of plays per game. He also plays special teams. Now the guy who couldn’t get on the field last fall sometimes doesn’t have a chance to come off it.
VRENTAS: There’s a reason you don’t see many two-way players in the NFL these days. How much work does it take?
WHITLOCK: The first couple games, I didn’t study [for defense] at all. I just kind of lined up and played. As the season goes on I am studying more and more. I’m getting the playbook. Two weeks ago, I started getting the defensive film sent to my iPad. When I am here all day, it’s offense and then when I get home, I just have to put in a few extra hours of my own defensive study. I was actually just watching film, all the pass rush cut-ups of the Saints. I really never know where I am going to play, whether it is going to be a 0-technique, or a 3-technique, or a 6-technique. I never know, so I just go through and watch each player, and take notes on what their weaknesses are and what their strengths are.
VRENTAS: Your first game playing both ways was against Washington in Week 3. How did the coaches tell you?
WHITLOCK: They told me right before the game. The day of the game. [Defensive line] Coach [Robert] Nunn told me. He had kind of hinted towards it a few times all year, since the first game. Then we got to the Washington game, and we were just passing by each other, and he was like, “Be ready.” And I was like, “Yeah, Coach, I got you.” And he said, “No, for real, be ready.” I said, “Ohhhhh, really.” And we just went from there. He told me, we are going to put you in there, and [Cullen] Jenkins is going to get you lined up and tell you what to do.
VRENTAS: So before each snap, Jenkins lines you up?
WHITLOCK: Everything, especially the first two games. This last game, I had done a little bit more meetings with the defense, so I knew a little more. I would go out there and be like, “Where do I go?” He’ll wait until the linebackers make the call, and tell me, “Line up in a 3-technique over there; you’ve got a two-way go,” or “line up in a 2-I.” That’s 2-technique inside. Mostly he just makes sure I know what to do and then the rest is just playing defensive line, which I have done my whole life, so there aren’t a lot of pointers I need in that respect. My game is pretty one-dimensional right now. I’m not playing the run; it’s all pass rush.
VRENTAS: How do you split your time between offense and defense during the week?
WHITLOCK: I just try to get with Coach Nunn and Coach Spags [defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] when I can. When we do 7-on-7, I go to the defensive line, so I get a little time there. And when we do walk-throughs on Thursdays, I’ll leave the offense 10 minutes early and do 10 minutes with the defense. There is still a lot I have to learn on offense, being my first year playing offense. Defensive line is not incredibly complicated, thankfully. It’s not like I am playing inside ’backer or corner.
VRENTAS: It is less complicated because your job is simple—Rush the quarterback?
WHITLOCK: Right now that’s my job. Just get some pressure. Not as many rules to follow.
VRENTAS: Not only are slash players rare, a fullback-slash-defensive tackle might be the most rare in the NFL.
WHITLOCK: Maybe there could be more. When I was in Dallas last year [on the practice squad], I was behind Tyler Clutts. He wasn’t a slash player, but I know he played defensive line in Canadian Football. So I feel like there maybe could be guys who can do it, they just weren’t as lucky as me.
VRENTAS: Who first gave you the idea that fullback was the way for you to catch on in the NFL?
WHITLOCK: The scouts coming through Wake Forest, that’s what everybody told me. About halfway through my senior season, Coach [Bill] Faircloth came up to me. He was our personnel guy, and he said, “You might want to start catching some balls, because a lot of the teams are asking about you as a fullback.” When I got an agent, he said, “I think you can play D-line in the league, but I don’t think you’ll get a shot at it, so let’s focus on fullback.”
VRENTAS: You didn’t think you’d get a shot at defensive line because of your size?
WHITLOCK: Yeah. I don’t think you see any 5-10 defensive tackles in the league. But I like where I’m at now. I think it’s cool to do something unique; it’s cool to be able to play both ways. Fighting for what you want is always a good thing. It’s been a struggle, but it’s been fun.
VRENTAS: Have you studied any fullbacks to help you learn the position?
WHITLOCK: Since we’ve gotten into the season, I have been focusing on myself. When I was first coming in as a fullback, I watched a lot of John Conner. I liked him a lot, and we have a similar stature, similar build. I try to emulate him a little bit. That’s who I watched a lot of when I was trying to learn what a fullback does, because I didn’t even know what a fullback did.
VRENTAS: It’s a sort of a dying position these days. Did your college team even have a fullback?
WHITLOCK: We did. He is actually the fullback of the Jets. Tommy Bohanon.
VRENTAS: When you didn’t catch on with an NFL team last year, did you think it might be the end of the road for you?
WHITLOCK: Definitely. That goes through every young player’s head, the ones who bounce around a lot. I was just holding on as long as I could. I felt like if I got a legitimate shot somewhere with coaches that would take the time to really teach me and groom me, then I would be able to excel. That’s what I have here. They really took a hands-on approach and understood that I don’t know what to do. It was a foreign language to me. I would get to an offensive meeting and think, I have no idea what is going on; I have no idea what they are talking about. Playing nose guard my whole life, all I know is ‘rip,’ ‘liz,’ the right-left calls; or get in the ‘55 front’ and go. I was always told where to go. I don’t know coverages; I don’t know when a safety rotates. So coming to an NFL offensive meeting and hearing all this terminology, phew, it was over my head. [Running backs] coach [Craig] Johnson took a real hands-on approach with me and we started from an elementary level. In OTAs, we just hit the basics: over front, under front. I didn’t know what that was.
VRENTAS: Is there a play you’ve made as a fullback this year that reinforced to you that you can do it?
WHITLOCK: Every play. Every time I do something right, it is encouraging. There have been a few plays where someone missed an assignment, and I was able to clean it up. That takes a little forethought and those are always encouraging to me, because I am starting to see that I am looking past, I block so-and-so, and I am starting to understand concepts of the offense. Last year, I was on practice squad, and you don’t do much on practice squad. So every game is new. Every time we put in a new play, it’s the first time I’ve run it. All the timing is new, all the steps are new, everything.
VRENTAS: Do you ever get tired on game day?
WHITLOCK: It depends. Most games I don’t get tired, but there have been a few games where we went four-minute offense, and we went two-minute defense, and then I play every special teams, so in between the two I was doing punt and punt return, and kickoff and kickoff return, so there have been a few times where I was gassed. Washington and Buffalo, those were the two games that really tested my stamina. Just take deep breaths. Actually, when I had that sack against [Bills quarterback] Tyrod Taylor, I was gassed. After that play, I was gassed. I actually tapped my helmet to come out, but no one came to relieve me, so I just had to stick it out.
VRENTAS: That was your first NFL sack. How did it feel?
WHITLOCK: Yes, first sack in the NFL. I had two good rushes before that. I was in the 3-technique, and I ran straight through the B gap, and the guy came to block me. I just punched him in his chest, and he backed up a little bit and there was a hole. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was just a hole, and I shot my gap, and there he was. [Taylor] happened to start to scramble my way. If he had went the other way, or even sat in the pocket, it probably wouldn’t have been my play to make. But I think he was trying to get out to throw the ball to a receiver, and he came towards me, and I had daylight. It was just the perfect storm.
VRENTAS: You’re usually used late in the game as a spark for the defensive line. Those can also be high-pressure situations. Do you ever get nervous?
WHITLOCK: No, it’s just playing football. My role is to give pressure, and often times, you have to give pressure in crucial situations. That’s kind of the hand I have been dealt in my role. To me, playing defensive tackle is not surprising to me. Playing fullback is. I am much more nervous playing fullback than I am playing defense. Oh my God, yes. Every snap. Every snap.
VRENTAS: You seem to like the spin move. You used it to get a hit on Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins. Is that your signature move?
WHITLOCK: Um, you know, I use it a lot. Often times it’s not planned, it’s just my get-out-of-trouble card. You get into trouble, and someone is holding on to you real tight, what are you going to do? I’m going to spin. A lot of times it’s my secondary move, and it’s a good secondary move. Anybody who can perfect a spin move always has a chance on a second attempt. For some reason it’s working, so I have to keep it in my back pocket.
VRENTAS: You were named the Texas Class 5A Defensive Player of the Year your senior year in high school. Was that the biggest class in the state?
WHITLOCK: Yes, it was the biggest at the time.
VRENTAS: And you did that as a nose tackle?
WHITLOCK: Yes, as a nose tackle, 0-technique.
VRENTAS: It’s unusual for a nose tackle to get an accolade like that? What did you do to turn heads?
WHITLOCK: I just had a great year. I want to say I had 14 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, seven blocked punts, about 100 tackles. It was a different defense than NFL defenses. I went off to college, and we ran the same defense as I ran in high school. I played the 0-technique, but it was a lot of slanting. A lot of penetration.
VRENTAS: What have you learned from playing for Tom Coughlin?
WHITLOCK: I just like how real he is. He doesn’t take any BS and is real straightforward. He’s a tough guy, and I think the biggest thing I like about him is he has given me the opportunity to show what I can do. A lot of coaches would have never given me the opportunity. They would have never put me in at defensive line. So I think that’s the biggest thing that I can never repay to Coach Coughlin, giving me that opportunity.
VRENTAS: There’s also a big pass rushing tradition here.
WHITLOCK: Definitely. Hopefully I can keep it rolling.
VRENTAS: You shared a great story recently with Newsday’s Tom Rock about your name. It was picked out of a phone book?
WHITLOCK: Basically, my name was supposed to be Sergio, and my grandmother didn’t like it. My middle name is Nehemiah, out of the Bible, so she liked that. So my dad said we got his middle name out of the good book, and we’ll get his first name out of the book where we make money. He was working for Yellow Pages at the time, so he just picked up the phone book.
VRENTAS: That fact is hard to top. Got any others?
WHITLOCK: I got married at 19, had a kid at 19, went through college as a married man. That’s about it. My son is 5 now. His name is Nikita Nehemiah II.
VRENTAS: Last year, you bounced around and couldn’t stick on a roster. This year, you’re a two-way player for the Giants.
WHITLOCK: Oh my god, it was terrible. Last year, I lived in five different states. It’s good to settle down a little bit.