COVINGTON, Ga. — Dalton Whitley doesn’t seem like the type to talk your ear off. He may not greet you with a bunch of wild antics on or off the football field.
But one thing the senior Eastside linebacker seems to have a lot of is confidence.
Whitley will join forces with fellow linebacker and close friend Jamari Brundage to give the 2018 Eagles what he calls a “great 1-2 punch in the middle” defensively. And the way he says the two teammates have worked with and against each other to get better should make opposing offenses think twice about testing that middle.
“Me and Jamari are actually really close,” Whitley said. “Especially in practice. It’s really been like that since I got here to Eastside. He helps me in the open field stuff. Teaches me how to hold my ground and not get my ankles broken. I help him because he says nobody else hits him hard at practice, so I’m coming at you full force. I think it definitely makes tougher and better, and makes our defense that much stronger.”
Whitley had to get used to playing defense, though, and Brundage was also instrumental in making that happen.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound linebacker came over to Eastside after the 4th of July Dead Week break last summer from nearby Piedmont Academy with hopes of playing quarterback. But with the now-graduated Brayden Harper and emerging sophomore Noah Cook locking down signal calling duties last year, Whitley began to realize those hopes were becoming a bit far fetched.
“I was a little bummed out about it,” he said. “But I also saw it as a blessing. To be able to go in there and eventually start and be able to contribute to the team the way I did, it was really a great thing.”
Whitley amassed 38 total tackles and three stops behind the line of scrimmage while playing all 11 games of the 2017 campaign. But where he made his presence most felt defensively was in his pressuring of the quarterback. Whitley recorded five sacks last year, tying with Spurgeon Gaither for second on the team behind also-graduated Tanner Feeney who had six.
With those kinds of players departed, Whitley is part of a defensive nucleus that will likely include Brundage and a potentially talented secondary with the likes of Jamari Brown, Taylor Carter, Jordan Rogers and Jalen Davis.
One thing that’s given Whitley a confidence boost is having a full season, plus winter conditioning, spring and an entire summer in the Eastside program under his belt heading into the season.
“Last year I didn’t get to spend all summer with these guys,” he said. “So this has definitely been good. Spring ball helped. It’s definitely been different. The conditioning and getting on the field. The instruction afterward. I’ve never really worked out this hard before, and it took a bit of a toll on me at first, but it really opens up your mind and teaches you how to fight through when you’re tired and how that makes you a better player.”
Whitley said it wasn’t until third-to-last game of the season — at Salem on October 27 — where he really started feeling at home in the Eastside defense.
He pinpoints a particular play in the second half of that 21-0 Eagles win that he calls the turning point. It was early in the second half when Whitley found an open hole to hit the Salem quarterback. He charged full speed at him and stuck him hard enough to cause a bit of an audible eruption from the crowd.
“I had a bad first half, and coach (Nathan) Ogle was really on me,” he said. “I had bad reads and it was just one bad play after another, and he challenged me to have a better second half. Since then, things have come a lot more naturally for me.”
It wasn’t just football that brought Whitley to Eastside, though. He said he enjoys feeling more challenged academically. He currently holds a 3.4 grade point average, and he knows all of this could get him prepped to extend his playing days to college. But Whitley said he’s actually most interested in following in his father’s footsteps.
“I want to be a firefighter like my dad,” said Whitley whose father, Kevin Whitley, a battalion chief in the City of Covington’s fire department. “I guess I just love helping people. With a job like that, you don’t really get paid to just sit at the office. You never know what’s going to come next, and that’s exciting to me.”
Whitley says getting into football shape is giving him an idea of what getting into firefighter shape will be like.
“It’s definitely helping,” he said. “Now I’ll just have to stay in the shape I’m in as I got ready fire school and the physical training I’ll have to go through for that.”
But for now, it’s all about getting set to erase the bitter taste from his mouth that came by way of Eastside’s heartbreaking 21-16 first-round playoff loss at home to Baldwin to close out the 2017 season.
“That was hard for us,” Whitley said. “But it didn’t take long for us to start putting it behind us and using it to motivate us for next season. I guess it was maybe the next week after that game when we started working out again at school, and we were out there going harder and longer and running more. Just trying to get back at it and get better. We don’t want to feel that way again.”