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July 26, 2012

Measure of a man

Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock smiled and laughed when he told reporters at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, NC he may have been 6-feet if his parents named him Sergio instead of Nikita.

"It was going to be Sergio Nehemiah Whitlock, and my grandmother said, 'No, you can't do that,'" Whitlock said. "My father was working for the phone company, and he was like, 'If we can't get a name from the good book, the Lord's book we might as well get a name from the book that pays the bills."

"He opened the phonebook and he saw Nikita [and] said it in a playful way. My grandmother was like, 'Oh I like that name. We're keeping it.'"

The 5-foot-9 and 260-pound redshirt junior from Wylie, Texas has never let his physical stature hold him back.

"It was either Wake Forest or Iraq," Whitlock said. "That was my mindset. I was wanting to be in the military in some shape, form or fashion, so it was heartbreaking to know, to see that on the field that I was such a good player, but I was being overlooked because of my height, but I knew that I'd be able to do something with my life."

Whitlock, who was the Texas State 5A Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in high school in 2008, saw his scholarship offers from Northwestern State University of Louisiana and SMU taken away before Jim Grobe and his staff took a leap of faith on the diminutive monster.

"When we cut the film on he was literally making plays like he does now all over the field," Grobe said. "He was sideline to sideline, and as a nose guard that's unusual. We tried to move him to linebacker. The minute he went down [at nose guard] we said we've got something really, really good here."

The Texas native enters 2012 under high expectations as a pre-season All-ACC selection. He earned second team All-ACC honors after recording 64 tackles (26 solo), 14 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last season, and was named a second team Freshman All-American in 2010 after recording 44 tackles (20 solo), 10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

"He's extremely quick," Clemson center Dalton Freeman said. "If you don't get your hands on him you're going to get beat. He's a pretty intimidating guy to watch on film. He's somebody you have to put a lot of time and energy into all week, trying to pick up on his tendencies; if you don't you'll get embarrassed."

Boston College offensive tackle Emmett Cleary added Whitlock ruined parts of the Eagles offense last season in Wake Forest's 27-19 win in Chestnut Hill, as he made six stops and two tackles for loss.

Whitlock struggled to find his niche in Wake's 4-3 scheme as a freshman, but broke out when the Demon Deacons switched to a 3-4 later that season.

"The game I remember the most that kind of solidified my position at nose at Wake Forest was Georgia Tech two years ago," Whitlock said. "I want to say I had like 10 tackles, and I was just all over the place. It was a great game for me [and] a great confidence builder as a freshman on the field. It really helped me a lot to understand who I am as a player."

While impressive his on-the-field accomplishments pale in comparison to the level of responsibility he has taken outside of football. Whitlock, who is no stranger to doing the hard thing, juggles the responsibilities of a full-time student athlete along with a marriage relationship and fatherhood.

"Most people have football and family, and both sides get half of their time," Whitlock said. "I'm trying to fit three things into something that's only supposed to have halves. It's crazy. I like it; I love it. I love my wife and my son, and I love football."

"A lot of people play for themselves, a lot of people play for God too, but I can play for myself, God and my family. It's just extra motivation."

Whitlock, who celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary in March, draws insight from Grobe, who was also married with a son in college.

"There were some days last year where we would see him at breakfast or see him in the morning coming over for study hall and he looked like a direct it," Grobe said. "He'd been up all night. The baby's crying, but it matures you. It's great for you. There's not anything that develops you more than having to focus on somebody else and not yourself. Being married and having a child makes you focus on your family, and you really don't have time to think about yourself and I think that's one of the really good things about Nikita Whitlock is that he's doing all of the things he needs to do academically and football-wise, but he's got a little extra motivation, because he's got a family to take care of."

Grobe thinks Whitlock's teammates appreciate not only how good of a football player he is, but what he has to do to be one.

Whitlock came from humble means and did not always have the nicest things, but learned the value of a strong work-ethic from his parents.

"My father, the bad term would workaholic, but he's not a workaholic," Whitlock said. "He's just a blue collar man. He's always been raised and bred just to work. I've never known him not to have three jobs. Just watching my father work so hard for so little and keep working to provide for his family has always been something I admire and my mother as well."

"My mother is not from the best of families from south Louisiana. As a single mother she did the same thing; she worked hard. She did well for herself. I get my determination and strength from my parents."

Whitlock, whose parents divorced when he was toddler, began playing football at age 10 when he moved in with his father.

He took jujitsu when he was growing up. Whitlock does not use jujitsu on the field, but said it taught him body-awareness and hand-placement and those are advantageous to him as a defensive lineman.

While Whitlock's name came from the phone book it will forever be in the hearts and minds of the Black and Gold Faithful and the nightmares of opposing coaches, players and fans, and on a lighter note one can only wonder what he would have been like if his name was Sergio.


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