In just his first season as a starter for the Rams, former Monroe star Larry Whitfield has been impressive --- to say the least. From the linebacker position, he leads the Rams defense in total tackles, sacks and tackles for loss.
ALBANY -- Larry Whitfield's nicknames seem endless these days.
After the Albany State redshirt freshman and former Monroe star had a team-high 17 tackles and a 68-yard fumble return for a touchdown Saturday against Kentucky State, the list got even longer.
"They're calling me, 'Superstar, Larry the Great, Larry Legend, Larry the Cable Guy, Larry Holmes,' " Whitfield said with a huge smile on his face after Thursday's practice. "They're giving me nicknames and telling me to keep up the great work."
Whitfield, who began the season as the backup free safety but has started at linebacker the past four games, is now leading the team in tackles (43), tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2).
He was a 2009 Herald Dynamite Dozen selection when he was a defensive end and receiver as a senior at Monroe and has shown that same diversity in his first year of eligibility at Albany State.
Whitfield, who stands 6-foot and weighs 200 pounds, started the season opener against Savannah State backing up defensive leader Jamarkus Gaskins at free safety. ASU coach Mike White quickly went another direction in the second game of the season against Wingate, sticking Whitfield into the starting lineup as the strong-side linebacker, which is commonly referred to as the Sam linebacker.
That same versatility that allowed Whitfield to excel on both sides of the ball at Monroe with 16 sacks on defense and eight touchdowns as a wide-out during his senior season has made him a star for the Rams.
"He is doing stuff that we aren't used to the Sam backer doing," White said. "He is making us much faster and much more athletic in underneath coverage. He has been a huge difference in our defense. He gives us the ability to do some things that we wouldn't be able to do if we didn't have a guy like him there at that position."
Whitfield signed with ASU in February of 2010, and at the time said it wasn't exactly his first choice.
"I really wanted to leave home and go somewhere outside of Albany, but when Albany State offered I changed my mind," Whitfield told The Herald nearly a year and a half ago during his signing ceremony.
But during the past 18 months, which included an entire season where he was redshirted for academic reasons, Whitfield said his thoughts have changed about being a Ram.
"It wasn't my dream, but I learned to love and accept everything that God has given me," Whitfield said Thursday. "When I got here, I wasn't acting like I wasn't supposed to be here. (God) put me here, and I love being here. I love this school."
He was recruited by ASU offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner, who saw Whitfield's success at Monroe first hand while he was offensive coordinator at Monroe's city rival Dougherty in 2007 and 2008. On Thursday, White said he remembers Joyner's pitch to sign Whitfield.
"Coach Joyner said he could play anywhere," White said. "You can put him anywhere and plug him in. He was that kind of athlete. That's what we were looking for. That sold me."
Whitfield called sitting out the 2010 season "very hard." But he also said he learned a lot from defensive leaders like Gaskins and 2010 graduate Mario Fuller.
Gaskins remembers working with Whitfield last year and during the offseasons and has seen the former Tornado become as smart as he is talented.
"He worked hard this offseason, and it is paying off," Gaskins said. "I told him to get his name in the newspaper. And it's been there three weeks in a row.
"That's our firepower on defense. He trained hard this offseason, and we do a lot of things with Larry. He lets our defense do a lot of things. He is playing ball right now. I appreciate Larry."
Gaskins "appreciates" him, White is impressed with his ability to excel in both zone and man-to-man defenses and opposing teams are learning to fear him.
After recording just one tackle in ASU's season opener, Whitfield led the team in tackling against Wingate (nine tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss), was third against Valdosta State (six tackles) and was second against Miles College (eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack).
Saturday's performance against Kentucky State gave him SIAC Defensive Player of the week and Newcomer Player of the Week honors.
And the life-long Albany resident has done it all with a selfless attitude.
"He is very coachable," White said. "He is a hard-working kid. As a coach you love to have kids like this. If you ask him to do something, make sure you tell him the right thing, because he is going to go out there and do exactly what you ask him to do."
The red-shirt freshman has turned into the backbone of an ASU defense that is still looking to find its swagger. The Rams were ranked in the top three in the nation in defense last season but are outside of the Top 100 in both scoring and total defense this year.
Whitfield and the Rams are tasked with turning around a defense that is giving up 30 points and 393 yards per game.
But these days, "Larry the Great" is just where he wants to be on defense as the Rams look to start that resurgence Saturday at Lane College.
"When I was in high school, they always told me I was a linebacker," Whitfield said. "I was being recruited to play defensive end and wide receiver. Now I feel like a linebacker. I'm comfortable as linebacker. Basically, it's just like playing to my talent."
WHO: Albany State
(4-1, 2-0 SIAC) at Lane College (2-3, 0-2 SIAC)
WHAT: Rams' sixth game of the season, third in the SIAC.
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Jackson, Tenn.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
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