CHARLESTON — All-Atlantic Coast Conference Wake Forest defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock understands too well that at 5-foot-11, he’s not at the top of too many NFL draft boards. So Whitlock hopes a strong showing this week at the inaugural Medal of Honor Bowl will open a few eyes.
Whitlock is among 98 players at the Citadel looking for the same thing. Scouts for all 32 NFL teams and most CFL clubs have attended practices, all looking for difference-makers on the field. Whitlock knows his impact probably won’t be in the middle of the defensive line, where the 250-pound nose tackle made 82 stops – 19 of those coming behind the line of scrimmage his senior season.
Whitlock’s practiced at defensive end as well as fullback and tight end this week.
“It’s all about getting a chance to show what you can do,” said Whitlock, voted first-team ACC by league media and second team by league coaches for the 4-8 Demon Deacons.
On Wednesday, Whitlock appeared to do that, continually getting the backfield when lined up with the defense and leading the charge for tailbacks Rajion Neal of Tennessee and D.J. Adams of Portland State.
As Whitlock left the field for practice, he had a lengthy interview with an NFL scout. One of the Medal of Honor Bowl officials saw him afterward and said, “You looked like you had a good day.”
“I think I did,” Whitlock said with a grin.
The Medal of Honor Bowl takes place Saturday at Citadel’s Johnson-Hagood Stadium. The bowl, which costs about $650,000 to put on, has a five-year agreement with the school and officials have worked hard to make a quick impact with NFL evaluators seeking out talent.
Scouts lined the practice field Wednesday with personnel in team clothing from at least 14 clubs watching the action.
That was intent when area leaders discussed bringing an all-star game to one of the East Coast’s top tourist destinations, said bowl chairman Tom McQueeney.
“Hopefully, a lot of people will recognize that and come out and see it,” he said.
Proceeds from the game will go to help the Medal of Honor Museum on the USS Yorktown Aircraft carrier in Charleston Harbor and the Wounded Warriors Project among other organizations.
McQueeney said pre-bowl planning figured on about 8,000 spectators at the 20,000-seat stadium. But ticket sales are at about 8,500 and coming. Temperatures – a chilly, windy 40 degrees at Wednesday’s practices – are expected to touch 70 degrees for Saturday, which McQueeney hopes gives the bowl a strong walk-up of regional college football fans looking for one more fix this fall.
This bowl game isn’t the only last-chance opportunity to shine on the field in South Carolina. The College All-Star Bowl will take place at Furman University in Greenville on Feb. 14 and featured Whitlock’s teammate with the Demon Deacons, quarterback Tanner Price.
Opportunities like those are precious for players uncertain of their futures in the game, said former Citadel head football coach John Zernhelt, scouting for the St. Louis Rams this week. “Anytime you have a chance to perform in front of scouts and people who are going to evaluate you, it’s going to help your chances,” Zernhelt said.
Neal believes that, too. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound tailback was the Vols top rusher this season with 12 TDs and 1,124 yards – good for fifth overall in the Southeastern Conference. Neal figures he would’ve been training for Tennessee’s pro day if not for the Medal of Honor Bowl. He’s among six Tennessee players taking part.
“It’s great being out here will all those Vols,” Neal said. “We’re having a lot of fun this week.”
And getting some good contact with people who could enhance Neal’s chances in May’s draft. He’s met with several NFL teams the past few days and believes that could help him improve on his projection as a late-round selection.
Bowl executive director Brian Woods spent considerable time looking for players expected to fit into NFL teams’ profile of players taken in the fourth to seventh rounds. Woods believes this game will compete with the established East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl for top-tier players the next few years.
Woods whittled a list of about 300 players down to American and National rosters. The American team is led by former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen while ex-Dallas Cowboys and Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey will lead the National team.
“They’ve got an opportunity,” Friedgen said. “It’s whether they take advantage of it or not.”