September 30, 2002 BLACKSBURG — Two days before Virginia Tech’s 26-8 victory against Louisiana State earlier this fall, Ronyell Whitaker, the Hokies’ All-American senior cornerback, displayed rare form. It had nothing to do with sub-4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash. There was no textbook blanketing of wide receivers involved. Instead, he was relegated to cheerleader status. Huddling his defensive teammates on the practice field after a 1.5-hour workout, Whitaker scorched them with a profanity-laced tirade that would’ve made Woody Hayes blush.
Maybe it was just instinct, or genuine concern over perceived lackadaisical effort. Or maybe it was self-preservation.
Whitaker, the ebullient blabbermouth of Blacksburg over the last four seasons, is down to his last chance. He served a two-game suspension to start the season for what coach Frank Beamer termed “an unspecified violation of team rules.” Now, Whitaker will have to press to match the All-America status he was able to achieve last season.
The most recent suspension was Whitaker’s second in the last two seasons. He was forced to sit out Virginia Tech’s 35-0 victory against Temple last year as a result of another violation of team rules. He’s on thin ice.
Rumors persisted for weeks that Whitaker’s two-game suspension this season was drug-related. However, there was no confirmed proof that those rumors were true. In fact, every indication is that drugs didn’t play a role in his situation, although drugs did play a part in his life when he was growing up in Norfolk, Va.
Whitaker, diminutive in stature at 5-9 and 197 pounds, watched drug abuse tear down members of his family. His father fell victim to drugs. His uncle, boxing great Pernell Whitaker, has had drug-related legal troubles. Ronyell has learned hard lessons from those nearest to him, but he apparently has taken them to heart.
Instead, it appears Whitaker’s recent suspension was spawned from a much more benign offense that had nothing to do with drug use or even legal repercussions. However, it also seems to have been a violation for which he was wholly responsible.
Two days before Virginia Tech’s game against Marshall, Whitaker’s reinstatement to active status on the team was formally announced to the media. Yet, there was a special stipulation from Beamer. Whitaker must keep his mouth shut to the media for the remainder of the season.
“I personally think he’s got a chance to be a very good player on the next level,” Beamer said. “I think what’s really important to him is that he concentrates on the task at hand, his full attention to playing great football. When he does that, I think he’s very, very good.”
Seldom does a player with as much raw talent as Whitaker come down the pike. He gets it done with speed, anticipation and a whole lot of bravado. When asked prior to his junior season how he stays motivated, Whitaker’s answer came without provocation:
“Talk trash 24-7, plain and simple. I just go out there and yap from beginning to end Ö just basically talk about their mother, girlfriends, dogs, cats — harsh stuff that will really hit home. You have no room to be nice out there.”
The smack-talking tactic has backfired a few times, and often against some of the better fellow jabber boxes in the country.
Last November, Whitaker spent a great deal of the day watching the back of wide receiver Antonio Bryant’s jersey in a 38-7 loss at Pittsburgh. Bryant, who had five receptions for 93 yards and two touchdowns in that game, made a career out of harassing Whitaker and the Hokies, hauling in 27 career receptions for 435 yards and six touchdowns in three matchups.
Santana Moss, a former Miami standout receiver, also made good on a promise he presented to Whitaker to gain redemption following the Hurricanes’ 43-10 loss to the Hokies in 1999. The next season, Moss torched Whitaker in Miami for four receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Of course, two Florida State receivers have made highlight-reel material out of Whitaker as well. In the 1999 national championship game, Peter Warrick, whom Whitaker considers his trash-talking equal, immortalized Whitaker on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Warrick was pictured catching a pass that resulted in a touchdown, after sprinting past Whitaker. In FSU’s 46-29 victory against Virginia Tech in the 1999 Sugar Bowl, Warrick had six catches for 163 yards — mostly against Whitaker — and scored two touchdowns.
Last season, FSU’s Javon Walker squared off and got the best of Whitaker in the Seminoles’ 30-17 Gator Bowl win against the Hokies. Walker pulled in four receptions for 195 yards and a touchdown — again, mostly against Whitaker.
However, those examples are the extremes. Whitaker is bold. He is brash. He also is awfully good Ö when he keeps his focus. He had 53 tackles and an interception last season, and 61 tackles and five interceptions as a sophomore.
The constant chatter is an undeniable key to his game. If an opposing receiver allows even an ounce of Whitaker’s nastiness to enter his psyche, the day belongs to Whitaker. He has the upper hand.
Now Whitaker is involved in the biggest fight of his career. From here on out, it’s all about regaining respect — the respect of his teammates, his coaches, his opponents and the respect of NFL general managers.
First and foremost, he needs to focus on job number one, which involves nailing down his starting position in the Virginia Tech secondary. Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said on a call-in show three days before the Marshall game that he considered both Whitaker and sophomore Vincent Fuller, who started at cornerback during Whitaker’s two-game absence, to be starters. At game time, Whitaker got the nod.
Fuller certainly won’t be starting at the other cornerback position, where sophomore DeAngelo Hall is quickly establishing himself as one of the Hokies’ all-time great defenders. So, that leaves Whitaker’s old spot as the only other option. Still, the chances of Whitaker being supplanted as the starter are slim. Whitaker has too much ability, too much confidence.
The day after Foster made his comments, Whitaker was spotted sitting behind the receptionist desk in the Virginia Tech football office. When a reporter joked that he’d talk to him after this year’s bowl game, Whitaker flashed his million dollar grin and said, “Ohhhh yeah.”
Same ol’ Ronyell. Same ol’ cool. Nothing changes. He just rolls with the punches and comes back for more. Unfortunately, one more hit to his character, and it may be the knockout blow to his career.