Because the Tigers were stocked with experience and depth, “how soon” turned out to be a full year for Whitworth. Most onlookers agreed he had the ability to play as a true freshman, but it appears the refinement he gained in during his redshirt season is benefiting him as he continues on his debut campaign in 2002.
But Whitworth, a prep All-American considered one of the nation’s top lineman recruits two years ago, admits he may not have been ready to play right off the bat. And whether or not he had reached that point prior to this season became irrelevant over the summer when the two players he was competing against for the right tackle’s job were suddenly unavailable for the Tigers.
“My first thought was “Wow,” said Whitworth. “It wasn’t about who’s going to mess up more (in a three-man competition). It was that I can’t mess up. I’m the man right now playing. Maybe a freshman would come in and compete for the role, but pretty much it was all on me.”
After spending 2001 sidelines, Whitworth came through with one of the few shining performances for LSU against Virginia Tech. He is handling the pressure of a starting position, flourishing following a redshirt year and turning in one of the best performances from a freshman lineman at LSU in recent memory.
“When I see him get his hands on somebody, it’s pretty much over with,” said LSU running back LaBrandon Toefield. “He’s one of the best we’ve got right now, and he’s just a freshman.”
The tough decision on whether or not Whitworth would play as a true freshman in 2001 fell to head coach Nick Saban. He had shown no hesitation in adding newcomers to the mix in his first year at LSU, and his second recruiting class was replete with talent.
On the offensive line, however, the only gap existed at center where blue-chipper Ben Wilkerson of Hemphill, Texas, was put on the fast track. The tackle positions, where Whitworth was slotted, featured well-tested senior Jason Baggett and second-year starter Rodney Reed. Behind them were a couple more lettermen with experience in the LSU offense.
But instead of shelving Whitworth for a season, Saban decided to get him ready for action. The coach knew the true freshman would probably redshirt, barring a disastrous string of injuries. But the coach’s sights were set on the 2002 season when he decided to put Whitworth through the daily rigors of practicing with the first- and second-team offenses in 2001.
“Andrew, even though he didn’t play, was coached every week as if he was going to play,” Saban said. “He’s a bright guy so he learned game plans, and a lot of what he learned last year and the experience he gained in his development over spring practice made it much easier for him to become a starter this year and play well.”
Saban is leading a number of this year’s true freshmen linemen down the same path Whitworth took last season and hoping for the same positive results. A lack of depth will probably mean continued playing time now for Terrell McGill, who backs up Whitworth, but redshirts are still a possibility for players like Peter Dyakowski and Nate Livings. All three players are actively involved in the Tigers’ weekly game plan and are likely to see playing time in 2003, if not sooner.
Still, for Whitworth, it was not a smooth transition from high school to college football. For starters, he had to learn the finer skills of pass blocking for the first time. After playing 60 games on the high school level for run-based West Monroe, Whitworth had to adjust to a system that used pass blocking on about two-thirds of its plays.
There was learning how to pass block, and then the even-more difficult process of Whitworth becoming a confident pass blocker.
“My true freshman year, I don’t feel like it was a good year for me,” he admitted. “I don’t feel like I progressed that much. I don’t know what it was. I don’t think my attitude coming in was that good. I was a little worried about not being able to compete, even though I could. It was kind of a thing within myself.”
Through the rough spots, Whitworth continued on a path of progress. He and Reed, his roommate, broke down each LSU offensive series on the sidelines, with Whitworth explaining what he saw Reed doing and Reed explaining why he did it that way.
Working with the starters and reserves in practice, Whitworth’s development caught the eye of teammates and coaches. They understood why he wasn’t playing but still recognized his potential.
“Most freshmen come in with the mindset that they don’t have to do anything,” said Toefield. “They’re superstars already and don’t make that transition from high school to college. (Whitworth) wasn’t a guy like that. He worked hard and knew that he had the talent. He wanted to come out and prove it.”
Whitworth was set to do just that in the spring of 2002, vying for the right tackle spot with Kade Comeaux and Brad Smalling. Comeaux made great strides in the Tigers’ off-season strength and conditioning program and was giving Whitworth a run for his money, while Smalling