New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was on his way out of Thursday’s postgame locker room when he stopped—a wide grin across his face—to offer some praise to one of his defense’s contributors.
“Did you see this guy play?” Spagnuolo asked. “He’s something else, isn’t he?”
That guy was 5’10”, 250-pound Nikita Whitlock, the Giants’ starting fullback and "slash" player extraordinaire, who in addition to laying down some effective lead blocks for the running backs, contributed some fourth-quarter snaps at defensive tackle in the Giants’ 32-21 win over Washington Thursday night.
Whitlock, who was all smiles as he kept reiterating his appreciation to the Giants for “allowing me to live my dream” has certainly been one of the more pleasant surprises to emerge thus far for the Giants in this young season.
A surprising roster addition who knocked Henry Hynoski, the team's fullback since 2011, off the roster, Whitlock's play thus far certainly hasn't made New York regret the decision to make the change.
“He’s a multi-task, multi-talented guy who can rush the passer, play fullback as you all know, [and] is on all of the special teams,” head coach Tom Coughlin said. “He’s got great energy, this kid.”
“Hopefully,” Whitlock said, that smile never leaving his face as he spoke in the postgame locker room, “the best is still yet to come.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Whitlock, who was unable to catch on with Dallas or Cincinnati before landing in New York, has played 34 snaps as a fullback this season, 14 of which came against Washington on Thursday.
As they did last year, the Giants primarily use the fullback on short yardage, change of pace and goal line situations, and Whitlock has come through for them in this role.
Here is an example of Whitlock shining down by the goal line, the play being running back Andre Williams’ first-quarter, one-yard touchdown rush.
Whitlock picks up the outside rusher and drives him out of the running lane.
Left guard John Jerry seals another defender while Dallas Reynolds, the tackle eligible, and left tackle Justin Pugh kick out their respective defenders. The bang-bang play resulted in a wide-open space through which Williams cuts back to the inside and, behind Whitlock’s block, into the end zone.
The Defensive Tackle
It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to convert prospects from their original college position to another position due to factors such as size, weight, athleticism and build.
In Whitlock’s case, a position switch was inevitable—after all, it’s rare to find an NFL defensive tackle who weighs 250 pounds.
Coughlin, who isn't really into gadget plays or players, insists that Whitlock is a legit defensive tackle despite not having the ideal size for the position.
“He’s a tremendous energy player who’s very quick, very difficult for these offensive lineman to just be in position and stay with because he does have the spin moves and the acceleration and those types of things,” he said.
“In a limited capacity, he is an excellent change of pace, and you saw that he can generate some pressure.”
That is exactly what Whitlock, who took snaps at the position during the preseason, did against Washington in the nine late-game snaps he received with the defense.
The Wylie, Texas, native recorded one quarterback hit on a beautiful spin move that got him inside of tackle Tom Compton, the video clip of which James Kratch of NJ Advance Media has.
Here is the surprising part. Whitlock was able to do what he did without having set foot once in the defensive line’s meeting room in the days leading up to the game against Washington.
Whitlock credited defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins for helping him learn things on the fly, and Jenkins, in turn, praised Whitlock for his attention to detail.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Jenkins said. “The explosiveness he has—he can get after the quarterback and rush pretty well. He’s been at d-tackle during the preseason, and every now and then in practice, he’ll go out there and get a couple of rushes in one-on-ones.
"We know what he’s capable of and it’s just a matter of will his number be called on in an actual game, and he did a heck of a job [against Washington]."
Here is another instance when Whitlock very nearly managed a hit against Kirk Cousins, this time at the expense of rookie right guard Brandon Scherff.
Whitlock, who deploys a spin move, does a whirl against Scherff, slipping past him and into the offensive backfield.
However, Cousins avoids the hit by getting rid of the ball a split second before Whitlock gets there.
The one play, though, in which Whitlock really showed his chops as a defensive tackle, came with five minutes and 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
He sniffed out a screen pass in the flat to running back Chris Thompson and helped to limit the gain to just one yard.
Given a quick tap by Scherff, whose job was to get out to the second level to set up for the screen, Whitlock, instead of charging blindly at Cousins for a sack, keyed in on Thompson’s eyes and recognized that the running back was headed to the flat.
Whitlock then quickly changed direction and hustled as fast as he could out to the flat. While he wasn’t credited with the tackle—that went to cornerback Trumaine McBride, who had the better angle against Thompson—the play was still a success for the Giants.
Whitlock’s energy and diversity—he is also a primary contributor on special teams—are certain to keep him around on a Giants team that’s starved for playmakers.
While his future is at fullback, Coughlin didn’t rule out having the first-year player take additional snaps at defensive tackle.
“In a limited capacity, he is an excellent change of pace, and you saw that he can generate some pressure,” Coughlin said.
“He does have that unique ability [to play multiple positions] and you know what? He plays so hard on special teams. As a fullback, he is very physical, throws his body around up in the line of scrimmage. He can wear different hats.”
In other words, Whitlock is a Coughlin-type of player who can only help this team moving forward.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina