Jonathan Wilhite was drafted two rounds behind fellow 2008 rookie Terrence Wheatley. But when last season hit it was Wilhite not Wheatley who saw game action first as the fourth-rounder out of Auburn ended up playing in all 16 games while closing out his first season with four-straight December starts.
Despite Wilhite's late-season ascension, entering training camp 2009 many expected first-year veteran free agent additions Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to be a major factor in a re-tooled New England secondary that, theoretically, had two open starting jobs up for grabs.
But when healthy this July and August, Wilhite – who returned to the practice field late last week after missing about a week of work in Foxborough – has found himself right where he was last December, atop the depth chart. The second-year player out of Auburn has been getting the bulk of the reps "with the ones" at left corner opposite Bodden in a secondary that includes returning safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders.
Sure, Springs has missed the bulk of camp to date, but Wilhite's work has looked more like that of a comfortable veteran in the extra reps than a part-time practice fill-in.
"It's an opportunity for all our cornerbacks," Wilhite said. "It's a chance to go out and get some physical reps and get out and play against some good receivers. I think by doing that you gradually increase and your game gets better."
According to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichickthat's exactly what Wilhite has been doing for the entire year-plus that he's been in New England.
"Jonathan, I thought, made a lot of strides last year from the beginning of the year to the end of the year and then he followed that up with a real strong offseason, offseason program, and spring camps and got off to a good start here in training camp," Belichick said. "Jonathan has really worked hard. He's become a very dependable player for a young guy. He's smart. He's quiet, but he definitely understands not only what we're doing, but concepts and offenses and how they play. He's a versatile kid. He plays in the kicking game, can play outside, can play inside on the corner. So he's got a good variety of skills and that's always valuable when you can do different things with the same player. That helps him match up against different receivers, some fast receivers, some quick receivers, different guys that can run after the catch - he's a good tackler. I think he does a lot of things well and he's gotten better. It seems like every time he walks out on the field, it's been very, very steady."
Despite such praise, and the summer reps with the top unit on defense, Wilhite isn't ready to begin labeling himself as one of the team's starting cornerbacks.
"Not at all. I see myself wherever they put me," Wilhite said following Monday morning's full-pads practice on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. "Right now I'm with the ones, but that doesn't mean anything. Like I said, it's training camp and depth charts change every week. So we'll see what happens."
While he could very well be battling Springs for a starting job, Wilhite says it's a friendly, mentor-pupil competition.
"Over the summer me and those guys, we bonded," Wilhite said of the veteran newcomers. "Actually Shawn helps me out a lot. The guy has been in the game for a long time so he gives me some pointers and things in meetings and even out on the field that can help me down the road. So I'm blessed to be in this situation."
What's the biggest piece of advice that the 13th-year veteran Springs has given his young teammate?
"Be patient," Wilhite said. "This is a fast game and he just told me to trust my ability and be patient."
While he may be working to employ more patience on the field at the advice of his elder teammate, after earning significant playing time as a rookie Wilhite may not have to wait long in Year 2 to once again find himself in the starting lineup in New England.
"The biggest thing I think I can do is just continue to learn the system," Wilhite concluded. "And as far as in the meeting room, understand the concepts. I think this camp I'm trying to understand more, more of the little things as far as my technique and the receivers. I think that's been a positive so far.
"I can give you 10 things I need to work on. I'm still a young guy. I have a lot to work on."
Where better to work on those things than with the first unit of the defense lined up across the practice field from the likes of Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker?
Prepping for PhillyBelichick opened his late-morning press conference discussing the fact that the team had begun its preparations for Thursday night's preseason opener against the Eagles in Philadelphia. He said Monday was much like a regular season Wednesday practice, dealing with first and second down game planning in the morning with third down atop the agenda for the day's afternoon practice.
"We're cramming it in here to a couple days, but that's the preseason," Belichick said. "This will be a good opportunity for us down there in Philadelphia.
"They're a good team. They really handled us last year."
The Eagles beat New England 27-17 last August 22 at Gillette Stadium, part of the Patriots 0-4 preseason a year ago.
AttendanceAnother new face joined the practice action as rookie offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger was on the field for the first time after opening camp on PUP. Also returning to action were *Benjamin Watson and Le Kevin Smith, both having missed extended time with undisclosed injuries.
Those not on the field included Joey Galloway, Shawn Springs, Paris Lenon, Tedy Bruschi, Stephen Neal, George "Bus" Bussey, Jarvis Green, Shawn Crable and Mike Wright. With Ohrnberger in action, only Mark LeVoir remains on PUP while Brandon Tate is still on NFI. Injured rookie Tyrone McKenzie remains unsigned and out of action.
Lenon had limped off the practice fields on Sunday afternoon, while Wright limped off last Friday morning. Neal and Galloway have both missed occasional practices throughout camp. Crable missed the morning session after having practiced for the first time when he came off PUP on Sunday.
NotesMonday morning marked the 19th workout of training camp, the 14th session in full pads. … The workout took place under sunny skies in hot, humid conditions. … During a 9-on-7 interior running drill early in practice Laurence Maroney took the first few handoffs from Tom Brady. Sammy Morris was next in line, working with Kevin O'Connell. … Patriots owner Robert Kraft was on the field to watch the bulk of the morning's action. … Matthew Slater, after dropping a kickoff on Sunday, worked by himself with a JUGS machine catching kickoffs at one point in practice. The work paid off as he securely hauled in his reps in team kickoff work later in the session. … Ty Warren, Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess did some extra sprints together after the conclusion of the practice. … Burgess got pancaked by Ryan O'Callaghan in one pass-rush drill. Burgess took most of his reps in a three-point stance working off left end throughout the morning. … With more healthy bodies to work with, the defensive line put together a pretty formidable four-man front that consisted from left to right of Warren, Ron Brace, Vince Wilfork and *Richard Seymour. … O'Connell struggled throughout the morning, as did all three backups at various times. The second-year No. 2 missed a wide-open Tyson DeVree down the numbers at one point and later threw interceptions to Bodden and Brandon Meriweather. … Wesley Britt got a penalty lap for a false start in 9-on-7 work. … *Stephen Gostkowski went a perfect six-for-six on field goals to close out practice. Jake Ingram served as the snapper for the first four reps, Nathan Hodel *or the final two. *Brian Hoyer took reps as the backup holder in the middle of the segment. … The team returns to the field for the second practice of the day at 3:45. As always, be sure to check Patriots.com for any last-minute practice schedule updates or changes.
Who's Hot: Terrence Nunn. The first-year player is making a serious run at going from out of football to a roster spot on the best offense in the game. He's caught the bulk of the balls thrown his way, continuing to show strong hands, nice route running and the type of desire you'd expect from a guy with his back story.
Who's Not:Paris Lenon. The first-year Patriot has done little to stand out to this point in camp. Now, he's both out of sight and mind as he missed Monday's morning session with an undisclosed injury. A 100-tackle guy the last two seasons in Detroit, he's losing precious reps at a point when he should be trying to fine-tune his game in a new system.
Play of the Day: Nunn didn't have much room to work when he went up in the air Monday morning to snare a Brian Hoyer pass between the coverage of Darius Butler and Pat Chung. Chung put a decent hit on Nunn, but the upstart youngster displayed great body control to make the catch and hold onto the ball while falling to the turf.