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Talented Whitaker On Thin Ice

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 30, 2002 BLACKSBURG &#151 Two days before Virginia Tech&#146s 26-8 victory against Louisiana State earlier this fall, Ronyell Whitaker, the Hokies&#146 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&#146ve 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 &#147an unspecified violation of team rules.&#148 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&#146s second in the last two seasons. He was forced to sit out Virginia Tech&#146s 35-0 victory against Temple last year as a result of another violation of team rules. He&#146s on thin ice.

Rumors persisted for weeks that Whitaker&#146s 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&#146t 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&#146s 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&#146s game against Marshall, Whitaker&#146s 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.

&#147I personally think he&#146s got a chance to be a very good player on the next level,&#148 Beamer said. &#147I think what&#146s 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&#146s very, very good.&#148

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&#146s answer came without provocation:

&#147Talk 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 &#151 harsh stuff that will really hit home. You have no room to be nice out there.&#148

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&#146s 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&#146 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&#146s 46-29 victory against Virginia Tech in the 1999 Sugar Bowl, Warrick had six catches for 163 yards &#151 mostly against Whitaker &#151 and scored two touchdowns.

Last season, FSU&#146s Javon Walker squared off and got the best of Whitaker in the Seminoles&#146 30-17 Gator Bowl win against the Hokies. Walker pulled in four receptions for 195 yards and a touchdown &#151 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&#146s 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&#146s all about regaining respect &#151 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&#146s two-game absence, to be starters. At game time, Whitaker got the nod.

Fuller certainly won&#146t be starting at the other cornerback position, where sophomore DeAngelo Hall is quickly establishing himself as one of the Hokies&#146 all-time great defenders. So, that leaves Whitaker&#146s 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&#146d talk to him after this year&#146s bowl game, Whitaker flashed his million dollar grin and said, &#147Ohhhh yeah.&#148

Same ol&#146 Ronyell. Same ol&#146 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.