March 16, 2012

Whaley focused on priorities in senior season

It was the summer of 2011, and Alonzo Whaley had just gotten on the interstate leaving Omaha when he saw he had a voicemail on his phone.

The message was from Wince Morris, Nebraska's director of player personnel. He wanted Whaley to call him back immediately.

At that point, Whaley's football career at Nebraska nearly came to an end.

Because of academic issues, Whaley was left off the Huskers' initial 105-man roster for last year's fall camp, and he was even taken off of scholarship for two months until he started to show some improvement in his grades.

When fall camp started, the linebacker wasn't even allowed to come watch practice. For the first time in football career, it was as if Whaley was not part of the team.

Had Whaley, now a senior for the Huskers, known just how hard that situation would be on him emotionally, there's a good chance he would be playing somewhere else right now.

"That's how much my world crumbled right in front of me," Whaley said. "If I didn't have guys that cared about me like I knew they did in this program - and that's one of the reasons why chose to come here, because of the bond that we all have - I probably wouldn't be here. If I was somewhere where I was just another guy, I probably wouldn't be here."

When Whaley finally did rejoin his teammates for the start of Nebraska's first game week before the last year's season opener, all the progress he had made in his first three years was essentially erased.

Not only did he start out at the bottom of the depth chart, he also had to prove himself at a completely new position after switching from Mike linebacker to Buck.

As daunting as the challenge was and as frustrating as things got for the Madisonville, Texas, native along the way, Whaley fought through and, the week of NU's regular season finale against Iowa, eventually earned his first ever Blackshirt.

"I was at the bottom of the depth chart," Whaley said. "I literally worked from the bottom until I received my Blackshirt, and I did it with a smile on my face. You can ask anybody. Like I said, I formed into a new person, and I'm proud of who I am today."

Whaley said he couldn't have stuck with it without the help of his teammates and coaches. In particular, he said he leaned on guys like senior linebacker Will Compton and graduate assistant and former NU linebacker T.J. Hollowell.

Whaley said he had long talks with Hollowell all last season, and Hollowell used his past experiences to give Whaley as much advice and support as he could.

"He kind of related my story to his, and the thing I remember him telling me was 'When you make it through this, as a man you'll feel like nothing can beat you,'" Whaley said. "That's the attitude I have right now."

With a renewed attitude and confidence about him, Whaley came into spring practice last week as the favorite to win the starting Will linebacker job, where he just moved prior to spring ball.

He's already made quite the impression on his coaches, especially with his increased role as a vocal senior leader on the field and in the locker room.

"Zo's grown up," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I think he's a lot more confident than he's ever been. He's become a leader on our team. I think he's matured and really grown as a football player. I'm hoping that continues and he continues to make the strides he did during last year. I think you're going to see him become a really good football player."

He still has a lot to prove on the field if he is to be the one who replaces the great Lavonte David on Nebraska's defense this season, but one thing that won't be an issue again for Whaley are his academics.

Assuming all goes as planned this semester - and Whaley insists they will - he'll be just nine hours away from earning his bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice.

As much as Whaley may have contemplated leaving Nebraska when things got tough, he says he couldn't be more thankful that he decided to stick it out and work through his problems instead of run away from them.

"I didn't have a choice," Whaley said. "I mean, it's almost like do or die right now. So I didn't have a choice but to do the right thing, and you know, I needed that. That's what it boiled down to, and like I said, this is where we are today.

"You find a way to prioritize things… You just find a way to get through it."

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