Recalling his own playing days at Ava, Clever coach Willie Howard can relate to how opposing running backs and quarterbacks feel upon being tackled by Jays linebacker Jack Whitlinger.
Howard played against Whitlinger’s father, Jared, in Ava-Springfield Catholic contests in the 1990s.
“I tease Jack’s dad that he hit me so hard one time I didn't want to play any more,” Howard said. “He was a load. We ran the Statue Of Liberty play and Jared hit me and stepped on my shins, stomach and face as he ran over the top of me. Jack plays the same way, 100 miles an hour. He goes as hard as he can. We need more of that attitude.”
Whitlinger, a 6-foot-0, 205-pound junior, begins his first full season as a starter Saturday, when Clever plays host to Springfield Central at 7 p.m.
He’s also counting on this being his first full season with a clean bill of health.
Whitlinger took over as a starter three weeks into last season and thrived while emerging as a defensive leader, even while dealing with a nagging ankle injury. It was the same ankle he broke twice his freshman year.
“I broke the ankle and came back in the middle of the season and broke my ankle again in the same spot,” Whitlinger said. “There were a couple times last year that were a little rocky. I tweaked it a couple times and played through it. That was scary for me because I don't want to break it again. This year, I haven't had any problems with it so far. I wear braces for it just to be cautious.”
As Clever’s “mike” linebacker, Whitlinger has the biggest voice in the defensive huddle. But the plan is for the Jays to hear a bit less from him this season, in comparison to a year ago.
“I was calling out all the blitzes and call-outs last year,” Whitlinger said. “That kind of gave teams a hint of us coming through on blitzes and what blitzes were coming. They could adapt to it. Now, we're having the front seven read (the play call) from the coach. We’re hoping they can read the call-outs this year without having me repeating them.”
Whitlinger has momentum on his side, after an offseason in the weight room in which he increased his maxes on the bench press by 100 pounds and for the squat by 150.
“It's helped a lot blocking-wise and pushing people around,” he said.