Walk-on Whalen doing whale of a job for StanfordBy Mark Soltau November 11, 2011, 6:24 pm
Jim Mayzes remembers it like yesterday. Griff Whalen, his ultra-competitive freshman defensive back, wanted a shot guarding the teamâ€™s top receiver in practice. Never mind that he was a senior, Whalen held his own.
â€śEvery time he came up against good competition, he really seemed to take it to the next level,â€ť said Mayzes, head football coach at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio.
Whalen did everything for Southview, playing safety, option quarterback, wide receiver, and special teams. He loved helping younger players and hated when practice ended.
â€śI think the maddest I ever saw him is when I said, 'Griff, itâ€™s too dark, weâ€™re going home,'" Mayzes said.
When Whalen made the Stanford football team as a walk-on in 2008, few could have predicted what impact he would have. Three years later, heâ€™s a starting wide receiver and the unquestioned go-to-guy for Heisman Trophy front-runner Andrew Luck, his roommate of three years.
Whalen has caught 36 passes for 534 yardsâ€”both team highsâ€”and many of them have come on key third down situations. The six-foot-one, 193-pound Whalen has been especially productive in his last five games, catching 27 passes for 443 yards and two touchdowns.
â€śHeâ€™s made a ton of plays,â€ť said Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. â€śHeâ€™s not the biggest guy and heâ€™s not the fastest guy, but heâ€™s really working hard to master his skill set.â€ť
Even Whalen admits he probably doesnâ€™t cause sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators. Thatâ€™s part of what drives him.
â€śYeah, Iâ€™m sure plenty of people underestimate me,â€ť he said. â€śIt might motivate me a little. Itâ€™s not like I need motivation, like I wouldnâ€™t be playing hard without it. I wonder what a lot of teams are saying about me when theyâ€™re doing their scouting reports. I guess I have a chip on my shoulder.â€ť
How does Whalen get so open?
â€śA big part of what allows Griff to get open and create separation from defenders is really his understanding of coverages and coverage techniques,â€ť Hamilton said. â€śGriff is truly a student of the game and spends countless hours studying his opponents. In recent weeks, itâ€™s really given him an edge. And I donâ€™t think it hurts him one bit that he lives with the quarterback. They have developed tremendous continuity and Andrew seems to trust that Griff is going to get to the spot and ultimately make the play.â€ť
Whalen and Luck spent the summer playing catch almost every day, usually for an hour or two. Whalen also refined his route running.
â€śHeâ€™s also a good enough quarterback to be able to hit any receiver without thousands of repetitions, but Iâ€™m sure it paid off,â€ť said Whalen.
While Hamilton is surprised what a big contribution his senior wide receiver has made through the first nine games, helping third-ranked Stanford go 9-0, Whalen is not.
â€śThatâ€™s what I expected to do this season,â€ť he said matter-of-factly. â€śItâ€™s my job to run good routes, get open, and catch the ball. This is where I expected to be.â€ť
Hereâ€™s Hamiltonâ€™s take: â€śLast year, he was our fourth wide receiver and he worked really hard in the off-season. He came into spring ball in the best shape heâ€™s probably been in his life. He really, really made tremendous strides from last year. Heâ€™s made some big catches this past three or four games.â€ť
Whalen will need to do more of the same Saturday night, when the Cardinal host sixth-ranked Oregon in a nationally-televised game that many are touting as the biggest in Stanford football history. The winner will clinch first place in the Pac-12 North Division and a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 title game on December 2. The Cardinal, winners of 17-straight games, the longest streak in the country, would also put themselves in position to potentially play for the national championship.
â€śThis is why weâ€™re all here,â€ť Whalen said. â€śWe all think itâ€™s cool to be playing in a huge game like this. The energy and impact from the media isnâ€™t a bad thing. Itâ€™s not distracting to us.â€ť
Stanford will be minus at least two key performers on offense: wide receiver Chris Owusu and tight end Zach Ertz. That means Whalen, true freshman Ty Montgomery, and junior Drew Terrell must contribute, along with tight ends Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo.
â€śWeâ€™ve made our adjustments,â€ť said Whalen, who will graduate this spring with a degree in engineering. â€śThereâ€™s no big surprises. We have depth and know people can step up. Really, itâ€™s an opportunity for all those guysâ€”myself includedâ€”with Chris down, to make plays, too.â€ť
Theyâ€™ll have to keep up with the high-octane Oregon offense, which features the nationâ€™s top running back in LeMichael James.
â€śWe gotta score points because we know they can do that quickly themselves,â€ť said Whalen. â€śWe have to be consistent. We donâ€™t have to do anything crazy that we havenâ€™t done. We just have to execute our plays and each guy do their job.â€ť
Mayzes will be watching and has no doubts Whalen will do his part.
â€śHeâ€™s very special to all of us,â€ť Mayzes said. â€śItâ€™s a big game and Griff wonâ€™t disappoint anybody.â€ť