NFL draft: Med school can wait for D3 corner who has plan for stopping Ja’Marr Chase
Andrew Whitaker is like every other long-shot NFL prospect in exactly one way: He has a dream of making it.
That part is unremarkable. But everything else about Whitaker, a cornerback at Division III Washington University In St. Louis, apparently is.
Whitaker is not only a standout at his level of football. He's also a national champion for the school in track. He has won or been nominated for national awards for academics (too many to list), community service (Allstate AFCA Good Works Team) and social consciousness (Fritz Pollard Award).
He has finished his undergraduate degree in mechanical bioengineering, received his master's degree and is on track for medical school.
But that can wait. Whitaker is putting all of his energies into making it in the NFL. In his mind, it's not a matter of if but when.
"I know I am going to get an opportunity," Whitaker told Yahoo Sports by phone this week, "and when I do, I am going to dominate."
If Whitaker fails, a lack of confidence won't be the culprit.
Larry Kindbom is an assistant at Wash U after having been the school's head coach for 33 years. He knows as well as anyone that the odds are stacked against Whitaker, who is not only one of his favorite players he has coached over more than four decades but also one of his favorite people.
Even as blown away as Kindbom has been over the past five years — watching Whitaker set goal after loftier goal, seemingly checking them off one by one — the coach can't help but be realistic about Whitaker's NFL chances.
"It’s a long, long, long shot to make the pros for a small-college player like Andrew," Kindbom said.
He should know. Wash U is by no means a pro-football factory. The program's last NFL player was Shelby Jordan, who played professionally in the 1970s and 80s. And Kindbom knows that football isn't likely to be Whitaker's only shot in life.
"Here’s the neatest thing: Four years from now we are going to be calling him Dr. Whitaker," Kindbom said.
Whitaker would disagree, though, saying "med school is on the back burner now." It's a fine line for Kindbom to ride, balancing his almost fatherly advice to him while watching Whitaker meet every goal he sets for himself.
"Part of you wants to say, ‘Andrew, put your toys away, it’s time for medical school.’" Kindbom said. "But then you find yourself in the front row, watching him dominate in two sports, saying, ‘OK, this is unbelievable.’
"He’s one of those people with the courage to not only say out loud he wants to do something, but also to go after it as hard as you can imagine."
The odds suggest that Whitaker is the longest of long shots. He played four games of high school football. There were only three Division III players drafted in 2021 and only a few dozen who played at that level in the league last season.
But odds are just numbers for Whitaker. He needs only to look at his father for inspiration.
"My dad is a doctor, a lawyer and an engineer," Whitaker said.
Uh, come again?
"He came from nothing," Whitaker said, "from the most humble background in Detroit, second youngest of 11 kids. First of his generation to go to college. He just went after his education and got five different degrees. He's accomplished so much. Most impressive man I’ve ever met."
Academics, naturally, were a big focus in the Whitaker family growing up. Andrew also loved sports — basketball, track, soccer and his biggest love, football — and came from a "family of giants," he said. His father, Anthony, is 6-foot-6. His mom, Pam, is 6-3. His two brothers are 6-5 and 6-6, and his sister, a Division I basketball player, is 6-1.
Andrew was the runt of the family, relatively speaking. He was a spindly 5-8 and 150 pounds prior to a growth spurt his senior year of high school. Whitaker received no recruiting attention because he wasn't elevated to varsity until midway through his final year.
"I am the definition of a late bloomer," he said. "I didn’t pass the eye test. But once my coaches gave me a shot, they were very shocked to see what I did, leading the team in tackles [the final four games]. They said they didn’t know and started apologizing for not playing me sooner."
It was enough to get a shot at Wash U, playing football and track, and pursuing a difficult degree at one of the best academic schools in the country. All he did was earn numerous academic awards and various community and leadership honors, work his way into becoming one of the best DIII cornerbacks in the country and winning a national title in the 60-meter high hurdles this spring.
Winning a national title in track while chasing NFL dreams
When Whitaker told Kindbom he was chasing the NFL and the hurdles championship at the start of this year's indoor track season, the coach had to remind Whitaker he wasn't even the best hurdler on his own team.
In response, Kindbom jokingly told Whitaker he wanted to be president of the United States.
"For him to come out and make that statement, knowing he wasn't even the best at hurdles on his own team ... and we’ve always been pretty transparent with each other. I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement, but that stretched me a little bit," Kindbom said. "But sure enough ..."
... Kindbom watched it happen. Last month in Whitewater, Wisconsin, Whitaker ran a personal best time of 7.943 seconds — 0.15 better than he'd ever run. Kindbom even looked over at one point and saw Whitaker studying for his classes between track events.
"I love winning," Whitaker said. "Track is a great sport for a competitor like me, but football is my No. 1 passion now."
And he's all in on chasing his NFL dreams. Following a first-team all-conference senior season with four interceptions (one pick-six) in 11 games, the 6-1, 184-pound Whitaker went to the College Gridiron Showcase all-star game and performed well against other small-school standouts from across the country.
While there, a Los Angeles Rams scout gave Whitaker some advice: be more patient. It's not the easiest ask for a young man who knows few limits to what he can achieve.
"I was trying to be extra aggressive, wanting to prove myself, trying to muscle people at the line and throw them out of bounds," he said. "But it's good advice because I try to win by winning the mind game, by knowing the opponent and how to beat them.
With the help of Wash U assistant (and former NFL scout) Marc Lillibridge, Whitaker was invited to perform at Mizzou's pro day. He was disappointed in his 40-yard dash times (4.49 and 4.55 seconds) and some of his other numbers but has had long talks with scouts from the Philadelphia Eagles and his hometown Cincinnati Bengals since then.
"He's the real deal," Lillibridge said. "A little stiff in the hips, and he needs to be around football 24/7 to reach his full potential. But he has the raw skills. And he's the type of kid that you want to marry your daughter, and the type you vote for if he were to run for office."
Whitaker is on the Bengals' radar, and he wants to cover Ja'Marr Chase
The Bengals invited Whitaker to their annual workout for local prospects on Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium. It was a first taste of the NFL with the team he lustily rooted for in the Super Bowl a few months ago, wearing his Joe Burrow sunglasses while watching the game.
Whitaker was one of three defensive backs invited, so he got a lot of work under the watchful eyes of Bengals secondary coaches Robert Livingston and Charles Burks, and came away feeling even more confident about his chances to make it in the league.
"My transitions were smooth, and I focused on catching and keeping my pad level low," he said, ever the perfectionist.
Asked what it would be like to be signed by his Bengals and have the chance to take reps against, say, Ja'Marr Chase, Whitaker already has crafted a plan of attack for covering one of the NFL's best receivers.
"Honestly, I am pressing him for sure," he said, without hesitation. "I think the thing that most impresses me about Ja’Marr is not his speed or his size. It’s the way he can pull you through when you get your hands on him. Davante Adams is like that too.
"I wouldn’t get hands on [Chase] right away. He has to come to me before I get hands on him. Bringing his momentum to me. I am going to make him fight me for his route, I’m not just giving him what he wants to run. So I would probably soft shoe him. Just be really patient with him at the line.
"If he wants to go down the field with me, I welcome that. Let’s make it a track race."
Of course Whitaker has a plan for covering Chase. Of course he's already visualized it happening. It's the same way he's reached every other goal to this point. Why would it be different for this?
"He’s just not afraid to fail," Kindbom said. "There are a lot of people who want to be the best. But Andrew can fail at something and come back the next time convinced he’s not going to fail again. So he’s already ahead of the curve on that.
"He’s done that enough times where it's like, who am I to doubt him? There’s no embellishment with his story, and it’s a continuing story. I can’t wait to see where it ends."