ELIZABETH CITY — They say patience is a virtue, and it is obviously a characteristic instilled in Keitha Whitaker. The Southeast Halifax alum had to wait his turn on the Elizabeth City State University football team, and that patience has paid off.
This season, Whitaker’s senior year, the 2008 Daily Herald Defensive Player of the Year, has found himself on the field, not as a part-time special teamer, but as a full-time starter on the Vikings defensive unit.
Whitaker, who was dubbed ‘The Hitman’ in high school, will make a return close to his Scotland Neck home when the Vikings host Saint Augustine’s College at 4 p.m. Saturday in Rocky Mount for the 15th Annual Downeast Viking Football Classic. Over the phone Whitaker sounded like he was smiling from ear to ear when asked how excited he was to be playing so close to his hometown.
“It all goes back to where I started,” Whitaker told The Daily Herald. “I am excited to be playing so close to home and making an impact on Vikings football this year.
Whitaker said he will have a lot of family and close friends in the stands Saturday, not to mention former classmates and current Southeast Halifax Trojans, who plan to attend the game, which has become a featured event for Rocky Mount and the surrounding areas. This will not be Whitaker’s first time playing in the Downeast Classic, but in the past his role has been limited to special teams player.
Not this season.
“I finally got a position where I could get a little more playing time this year,” Whitaker said.
ECSU head coach Waverly Tillar said it was just a matter of Whitaker waiting for his chance.
“He grew up in the system,” Tillar said. “He has gotten bigger, faster and stronger over the years and he is playing the kind of football that we knew he could play.”
Whitaker was a standout linebacker in high school, but arrived on campus listed at 5-feet, 9-inches tall and around 180 pounds.
He started his career in the secondary, but returned home to his more natural linebacker spot this season. Whitaker said he weighs around 200 pounds, adding on the weight necessary to bang with the big boys.
“He came in feeling he could play in the secondary,” Tillar said, “but as time grew on and he watched guys ahead of him, he pretty much said to himself that he could play the weak side linebacker. Once he committed to that he has played well.”
Whitaker enjoys being back in the thick of things.
“It is always good to be in the mix,” he said. “Playing that (outside) linebacker I feel more comfortable like I was playing in high school.”
He admitted during the last few seasons, he was frustrated only playing on special teams and standing on the sideline while the defense was on the field. Whitaker used that time as motivation to get better and to learn the system, that way when his number was called, he would be ready. He said the most challenging part was simply not playing on Saturdays.
“Anyone who loves the game wants to be part of the action,” Whitaker said. “But my biggest thing was learning the schemes so I could play efficiently.”
And can “The Hitman” still bring the fire and lay opposing ball carriers out on the college level?
“Of course,” Whitaker said with a laugh. “Always.”