Auburn’s senior defensive tackle will redshirt this year because of a right knee injury he suffered before the season opener against Washington State.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made the announcement Tuesday and said the decision was made earlier this week.
Malzahn pointed out that Whitaker hasn’t been able to operate at full health in quite some time.
“He's kind of been playing banged up for the last year or so, anyway,” he said. “I think it'll just be good for him to be healthy.”
Malzahn hopes having 2013 off will pay dividends for Whitaker when next season rolls around.
“That's our goal — to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season,” he said.
Fellow defensive tackle Gabe Wright was saddened by the news, having seen how much work Whitaker had put in while attempting to return this season.
“Every day, Tuesday and Thursday while we're doing weights, he's doing something a little bit individualized working on his knee,” Wright said. “Jeff has always been a high level guy, a high respectable guy.”
To Whitaker’s credit, Wright said his elder teammate never let the injury darken his mood.
“He's not one of those guys who will linger or stay down about it,” Wright said. “He's always on the sideline with us, getting us up. He's just that type of guy. He'll be the first one to congratulate you when you make a play.”
Whitaker would also be one of the first to correct other defensive linemen when he noticed them making mistakes during games. At times, Wright recalled, the senior was even more vocal than the coaching staff when it came to giving instructions.
“Sometimes we have to say, ‘Coach Whitaker, can we listen to Coach Garner a little bit?’” Wright said. “That’s just what you’re going to get from Jeff whether he’s playing or not playing. He definitely brings a third coach to the (table).”
Wright was able to find one positive amidst the bad news of Whitaker’s lost season. He said it means he’ll get to be a senior next year alongside the player who recruited him to Auburn in the first place.
“We will lose some seniors this year, but having Jeff coming back will be pretty awesome, too,” Wright said. “Jeff has been working his butt off. I know he can’t wait to get back. All we can do is just play for him this year.”
GARRETT WEEK-TO-WEEK: Whitaker’s injury wasn’t the only one Malzahn touched on during his opening statement Tuesday.
Linebacker Justin Garrett, who has a cracked bone in his right foot, has also been contemplating taking a redshirt this year. However, Malzahn said the junior is still planning to play this season, deeming his status “week-to-week.”
His availability for Saturday’s game against Western Carolina has already been decided, as Malzahn said Garrett won’t suit up.
“We're just going to see how he reacts,” Malzahn said. “He wants to play. We'll just see how everything happens with that.”
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Sunday if Garrett's condition does not improve, he likely will have surgery and then apply for a redshirt.
C.J. Uzomah is also working his way back into form after seeing limited action in the victory over the Rebels.
“He’s just trying to get back to full-speed,” Malzahn said of the junior tight end. “He was banged up last week, and I think he played one play, and he was about half-speed. We just said, ‘Let’s give him some rest.’ We’ll need him (to be) 100 percent and he’ll be there pretty quick.”
JEREMY JOHNSON: Jeremy Johnson has not appeared in a game this season.
But Malzahn declined to say whether a redshirt was forthcoming for the true freshman quarterback.
“I know it’s getting to a point now where you got to do what’s best for him and what’s best for your team,” Malzahn said, “but he’s still getting a lot of reps in practice and he’s improving.”