Zach Whitley could hardly contain his anticipation, the chase lying moments away.
On this particular play in Saturday’s spring football practice, the freshman linebacker stood upright on the outskirts of the defensive line, one foot in front of the other – ready to rush the passer. His back foot made an itching motion, then stopped. Another itching motion ensued, but again it stopped.
Then, snap – he was gone. Too early.
It seems eagerness has become engrained in Whitley. Whether it’s in a play here or there, or in his football lifestyle, the former four-star recruit has shown little desire in waiting to lace up the cleats and don the pads for the Bruins.
Whitley is an early-enrollee at UCLA – a newly-mintedfreshman by choice but a should-be high school senior by traditional standards. By the start of Thursday’s second official practice, he had already begun shedding his free time in favor of extra reps. For Whitley, taking initiative couldn’t wait until week two, let alone day two.
“Zach didn’t feel like he got enough work in on Tuesday and so he came out here on his own,” said coach Jim Mora. “(He) hit bags, did change-of-direction stuff, ran sprints for an hour and a half on his own.”
Once an Alabama recruit, Whitley flip-flopped his commitment to UCLA in an 11th-hour January switch. Thus far, the Bruins look to be a winner in this change of heart.
Early on, Mora has already raved about Whitley’s athleticism, his length and his fluid lateral movement. That much took a back step to even higher praise.
Last Tuesday morning, with the finish still drying on the first official practice of spring ball, a crop of reporters had already begun the whispers of Whitley as the “next Myles Jack,” referencing the sophomore who was last year’s breakout star at linebacker.
Jack did them all one better.
“I feel (Zach) can be a better player than me,” he said last week. “He has a spring, he has a great coaching staff, just what he’s coming into I feel like the sky’s the limit for him.”
Whitley, however, felt otherwise.
“He said that? No …” Whitley said, his voice trailing off among the chuckles of reporters. “I don’t know about that.”
For the the program that deems itself “Linebacker U,” Whitley could be the next star as opportunity comes knocking. There are holes in the defense left behind by departing linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, and the competition is ongoing for those starting spots.
Maybe Whitley could replace Zumwalt on inside. Maybe he could move outside. Whitley doesn’t know yet, nor cares for it much at all, he says. He just wants to play.
Like the logistics, the adjustment to college football has been a work in progress.
For Whitley, it’s the tempo and speed of the game – it’s too fast, for now. He’s far from the first freshman to point to this glaring difference as a sore transition point, and time will only ease the pain.
“He’s had his bumps, and he’s not where he needs to be but you see some glimpses of something pretty special. So I’m fired up about him,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich.
It is early, and the Bruins’ expectations of Whitley could use a dab or two of cooling ointment, but the excitement does seem warranted, maybe even to the point of an opening-day starting linebacker spot come August.
After all, he is a fast starter.