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Bruin Makes His Move

Whittington goes from a fill-in to a starter at linebacker

September 08, 2006|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Chuck Bullough didn't know much about the players he inherited when he was hired by Karl Dorrell to coach UCLA's linebackers.

To Bullough, Aaron Whittington was the same as John Hale, who was the same as Reggie Carter, who was the same as Shawn Oatis, Fred Holmes, Korey Bosworth and Eric McNeal.

"I didn't have any preconceived notion about any of them," Bullough said. "I wanted them all to play. I was going to make a decision by watching them."

The clean slate worked for Whittington, a junior who'd had a disappointing end to the 2005 season. After starting the first two games in place of veteran Wesley Walker, who was sidelined by an injury, Whittington missed the final four because of a deep thigh bruise.

Whittington said the day after UCLA's victory over Northwestern in the Sun Bowl, he went home to St. Louis and "took a long look at myself."

"I knew that there were some things that I needed to do to improve as a player and I just went after it," he said.

Instead of waiting until UCLA's spring practice, he started working out with two of his six older brothers, Bernard and Alex, who'd both played in the NFL. They, along with several current and former NFL players, including cornerback Aeneas Williams and wide receiver Isaac Bruce, gave Whittington a lesson in dedication.

"I saw how they trained and how much more disciplined they were," Whittington said. "They really worked on fundamentals. I learned so much working with them."

He also changed his eating habits.

"He became serious about his nutrition," said Kevin Whittington, one of Aaron's brothers who lives in the Los Angeles area. "I didn't want him to just eat the right type of foods, I wanted him to look up the science behind it. Not just count the calories, but know what type of calories he was putting into his body."

Weight gaining has been a chore for Whittington since he has been at UCLA. At Hazelwood East High in St. Louis, he was a 6-foot-2, 183-pound All-Missouri defensive end who dominated offenses with his tenacity.

Tenacity remains an admirable quality, but it pays to pack some pounds in college football and this season, finally, Whittington weighed in at 215 pounds when training camp began, thanks to his improved diet.

"We expect a lot out of Aaron," Kevin Whittington said. "He's the last one. It's really a family deal."

Whittington made a strong impression on Bullough and the Bruins' new defensive coaching staff during spring drills.

"The thing that stood out ... was his work ethic," said Bullough, who coached for five seasons with the Chicago Bears. "He works his tail off. He doesn't complain and gives everything a full go. He's the type of guy that you like to coach."

In UCLA's media guide, Whittington is listed at No. 2 weak-side linebacker, behind McNeal, with Hale and Bosworth the top two linebackers on the strong side. That lineup changed shortly after camp began.

Within a week, Whittington moved into the starting lineup. His hard-charging style emerged as a good fit in UCLA's new attacking defense.

"Aaron and I are both from the Midwest and came in together as freshmen," said cornerback Trey Brown, from Overland Park, Kan. "People have always had something to say about his size and claimed that he's too small, but the one thing I can always say about Aaron is that he's always going to play hard.

" ... Whenever Aaron goes out there, he's going to make plays and make things happen. He's always been consistent with that. He's had time to get a feel and be comfortable in that position. It's good for him and good for our defense to have someone like that in our linebacker position."

Whittington started UCLA's season opener against Utah at strong-side linebacker and played well. He had four tackles, including two for losses in the Bruins' 31-10 victory.

"He still has work to do on some footwork things and some technique things, but that will come," Bullough said. "It was the first game and everybody was like that. In the NFL, you have preseason games to work things out."

Whittington's goal is to keep improving and stay in the lineup. Hale sat out the first game, suspended for fighting, but will back up Whittington against Rice on Saturday. They are expected to battle for playing time the rest of the season.

"Whitt's a real good player," said Hale, who started seven games last season as a freshman. "It's going to be tough for me to get back in the lineup. We'll see what happens."

Meanwhile, Whittington is glad to be playing in a defense that exploits his strengths.

"The biggest change for us this year is our mind-set," Whittington said. "All we've heard is how we had the worst defense in the land last year.... We just need to prove to everybody that we can play football.... We are so hungry and determined."

And so is Whittington.

lonnie.white@latimes.com

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