- Free Agency
After he and the Alouettes offence had misfired through a muggy, windy practice, Brandon Whitaker seems unusually cranky.
He’s not rude, just focused on something else, it seems.
Maybe he’s hungry, literally and figuratively.
The multi-purpose running back is about to shoot a commercial for the drum-sticks vendor at McGill Stadium. “Pilons de Dindon” promises “more protein, less fat.”
For the punishment his body has been through the last two years “B-Whit” should barely have a leg to stand on, turkey or otherwise. Now more than ever he knows the pressure of carrying the load.
“When our old coaches were here we didn’t run the ball enough,” he said just days after the season-opening loss in which he registered nine carries for 49 yards in the first half, yet only three carries for 10 yards in the second.
“But we trust what our coaches are calling and we just have to go out and execute. We didn’t do that last Saturday.”
Deciding on the right play-call can be like naming a child. There’s no right answer, but plenty of critics to tell you you’re wrong.
Whitaker suggests he can carry the rock more often to help ease the transition to fulltime starter for Troy Smith.
But how can a tailback that’s been through two major leg injuries over the last two seasons realistically think he has what it takes to carry an entire offence? Well, according to the 28-year-old from Edmond, Oklahoma, the secret fuel for his confidence is all about something totally unrelated to football – fatherhood.
“I have a little boy on the way and that’s something that motivates me every day,” says the workhorse who gained more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2011, but has not even matched that total over the last two seasons due to injury.
“It motivates me every day and my wife stays on me about it,” he says with a workman-like look on his face.
They’re still going back and forth on a name.
“We’re going to wait until he comes out,” says the former Baylor Bear who already has five seasons under his belt.
The due date is just three days after a roadtrip to Regina to face the defending Grey Cup champs, and the Als are scheduled to make it an old school Western swing with another game against the now West Division Blue Bombers three days after Whitaker’s wife Angela is done carrying their blessing.
I ask for a scouting report from Brandon on his parenting skills.
“I have no choice, I have to be good. My parents, her parents, they keep me accountable and she is too. I’m happy, I’m excited about it and it’s one of the happiest things in my life.”
Happiness on the job comes from carrying the burden of responsibility. During the five-year Marc Trestman regime, Whitaker provided a spike in the Alouettes’ winning percentage if he touched the ball 18 times or more.
He’s vital to pass protection flaring out of the backfield as a safety valve, and in his All-star year of 2011, racked up 72 catches along with 226 carries. Even when injuries hit in 2012, he had almost as many receiving yards as rushing (516-631).
Whitaker, officially listed at 5’10”, 200 pounds, must also carry the pass protection load.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who works as hard as that guy on and off the field,” says hulking right tackle Jeff Perrett. “I think it’s unfortunate sometimes he doesn’t get utilized as much as he should because he’s an elite player in this league, but he wants it bad.”
“Don’t forget he’s probably the best-blocking back in the league. He knows protections inside and out. There’s really nothing he can’t do, which is really awesome for us. We just have to use him.”
General Manager Jim Popp is all for that. He coaxed the patience out of Whitaker during his years as practice roster understudy to Avon Cobourne. Popp knows that Whit wants more touches to help Troy Smith, the same way Mike Pringle always wanted the ball more from fellow Hall of Famer Tracy Ham.
“Everybody looked at it as Pringle’s offence, but it was Tracy’s offence and Mike benefitted because Tracy wasn’t afraid to hand the ball off to him,” recalls Popp.
“You gotta realize that’s a situation that can really help Troy Smith alleviate pressure. The more that Brandon can touch the ball, workhorse it, the better off it will serve Troy.”
Whitaker insists he must step up his performance from Week 1. His return to health seemed to be the only silver lining in the lopsided loss to the Stamps. Brandon claims he missed assignments and blocks that sent Smith scrambling or worse…to the turf.
“You just gotta stick your head in their and protect the quarterback. It’s definitely something I take great pride in and something I learned from Avon.”
Up the outside of Whitaker’s left calf are Japanese characters: “God-fearing.” There’s plenty of room on the other leg for a tattoo that could read: “he’ll do it all for you. Just let him.”
His son and his teammates are counting on it.