Autumn 2007. The Auburn Tigers are on the football field for the start of practice. While their players stretch, Tommy Tuberville and his coaches convene apart from them, making small talk.
Perhaps the staff is discussing the weather, the next game, last night's episode of American Idol, or even Tuberville's star turn in a new Under Armor commercial. Slowly, a low hum of giggling among the players crescendos into side-splitting hysterics. One of the coaches is dispatched to investigate.
He heads straight for cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, a usual suspect, who is surrounded by a large group of guffawing teammates.
Wilhite has seen the commercial, and was explaining it to the other players – how the spot starts off with two or three muscular guys in football workout equipment reciting, in deep, intimidating voices, the apparel company's signature slogan.
"The last sound you hear, before you step on the field: Click … clack."
And then Tuberville appears on the screen, escorting some of his Tigers, in their game day uniforms, onto what appears to be their home field. But his deliver of the "click … clack" line, as Wilhite demonstrates with dead-on accuracy, is nasal and a bit nerdy in comparison to the more masculine players.
Wilhite's teammates can't control themselves, and neither can the assistant coach, who does his best to hide a smile. It seems Wilhite has a penchant for voice impersonations and is a cut-up among his peers.
"Jonathan's a great kid. All the players love him," noted Auburn's Director of High School and NFL Relations, Phillip Lolley. "He's very funny, and that keeps everybody loose. He could be a stand-up comedian. He can imitate everybody, including all the coaches on our staff. Most of them have heard his impressions of them, and they love it."
But the Patriots didn't draft Wilhite to crack jokes. They'll need him to prove that he can cover some of the best wide receivers in the game.
"As a football player, he has real good man-to-man cover skills, quick feet, and good ball skills down field," observed his former position coach, Will Muschamp, who's now the Defensive Coordinator at the University of Texas. "He's good in sub situations. Jonathan came to work every day, worked hard, and gave a great effort. He has very good upside."
"Here at Auburn, we have a tradition – we lock down the corners, man-to-man. Even in Cover 3, zero-blitz, Cover 4 … only in Cover 2 do we ask our corners to play zone. Bascially we play nine men on the run, and the corners gotta hold up. So, he's been exposed to a lot of man-to-man, which he'll see in the NFL. One thing they'll have to teach him is when to open his hips when he's playing off guys at the line of scrimmage."
A knock on Wilhite heading into the draft was that he got beat too often on deep routes, but that he made up for it enough with his recovery speed. That approach might not fly in the pros, which leads Lolley to believe his best chance to make it in New England will be as a nickel or dime back.
"He has great quickness in confined space. Down the field, he has to play the ball better. He trusts his speed so much he thinks he can get away with things sometimes. He's not as big some guys; he's built for speed. He's gotten much better at the physical end of things, but he needs to stay in the weight room a little more."
As far as grasping the complex nature of the Patriots defensive scheme, Lolley and Muschamp feel Wilhite is smart enough to, and will work hard at, learning his assignments quickly.
Muschamp also noted that Wilhite had some hamstring problems at Auburn, but that didn't stop him from running a blazing 4.38 40-yard dash at the Combine.
"You're either a football player or you're not," Lolley concluded, "and Jonathan's a football player."
"John's a good person, and football's imporant to him. He'll work his butt off," Muschamp added.
It will be interesting to watch Wilhite perform during training camp. He may face long-shot odds to make the team, but with the loss of Asante Samuel and Randall Gay to free agency, he'll at least have a fair opportunity to make a good impression – on and off the field.