Who said you can’t go back? Jason Whittaker’s ride from quarterback to superback and back to quarterback


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Jason Whittaker (hat) celebrates after Northwestern defeated UNLV. Whittaker now wears No. 13 after wearing No. 7 and No. 85.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


One day after Northwestern’s 17-7 loss to Stanford, redshirt freshman Jason Whittaker was running to the weight room, getting ready for his Sunday lift.

When Whittaker arrived, he went to Jay Hooten, the Director of Sports Performance for Football. Hooten told Whittaker he was lifting with assistant director of strength and conditioning Lucius Jordan and his group.

“So I go over, run to Coach Lucious,” Whittaker told The Daily. “I look around, and it’s only me, Aidan (Smith) and (Andrew) Marty that are lifting.”

A few weeks ago, such a discovery would not have registered as odd in Whittaker’s mind. For the first year of his career, Whittaker was a quarterback, like Smith and Marty. But during the Wildcats’ trek to Kenosha this summer, Whittaker changed positions to superback. In the two-plus weeks since, he had been doing everything with the superbacks.

Whittaker was confused. He went up to Hooten looking for an explanation.

“‘What is this? Like, what is this right here?’” Whittaker recalls asking. “He was like, ‘What do you mean?’ I was like, ‘What do we got going on?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, this (group) is quarterbacks.’”

Soon after, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mick McCall called Whittaker to Pat Fitzgerald’s office, where the switch back to quarterback was confirmed.

With senior TJ Green out for the year, NU wanted to have another signal caller in the quarterback room, so they called upon Whittaker to return and run the scout team.

His return marked the end of a mini-journey that gave him new perspective, new understanding, and a new number.

He wore No. 7 for the 2018 season and the beginning of camp this summer. But, when he moved, he was given the No. 85. Whittaker told Marty — who wore No. 7 in high school — he could take the number, so the sophomore did. Now, with the rosters set and Marty not wanting to give up his prized No. 7, Whittaker is wearing No. 13, which is Marty’s old number.

“It’s funny,” Whittaker said. “Out in practice, people are calling me Marty and him Whittaker. It’s kind of confusing some guys.”

During his time as a superback, Whittaker was doing different lifts to put on more weight. Even though he is one of the tallest skill position players on the team at 6-foot-5, Whittaker is listed at 222 pounds, which is 27 pounds less than the average superback.

His practice experience was also very different. Quarterbacks are sheltered from hits, superbacks are not. After his first week of practice, Whittaker said his body “was not liking me” due to all the blocking, hitting and running he was not used to doing.

Despite taking some time to get his used to his new environment, Whittaker enjoyed his time as a superback, and so did his position mates. Sophomore Charlie Mangieri said the superbacks loved having Whittaker around and he brought a good energy to the group. Superbacks coach Bob Heffner — who said Whittaker was ready to see the field against Stanford — said it was great having him in the room and the redshirt freshman would do anything if asked.

“He came into my room with bright eyes and a smile on his face and embraced what he was learning in there,” Heffner said. “He went back to the quarterback room the same way.”

When Whittaker had first moved to superback, he was not totally shocked. In fact, the Michigan native said he had been thinking about it.

He played some wide receiver and superback on the scout team last season, and thought he did pretty well. Teammates in the locker room said he could do a good job at the position. He even talked with his parents about it.

And even though he wasn’t completely caught off guard, he did have mixed feelings about the move. He had been a quarterback since fourth grade, and it was part of who was. Then, in the blink of an eye, it wasn’t.

Whittaker said he took a step back to reevaluate. During that time of reflection, Whittaker gained new perspective not just on the game, but on life.

“It made me realize my identity isn’t really caught up in the quarterback position, or even football in general,” Whittaker said. “No matter what I’m going to do, I’m always gonna work hard, I’m always going to be determined to get better at it.”

He described this discovery as a “really big thing.” He now feels less pressure and more freedom when under center. But, how long he stays there is unknown.

Fitzgerald said he does not want Whittaker to be a ping pong ball being volleyed back-and-forth between positions. But he is unsure if Whittaker is done being rallied over the net.

“I want to get Jason on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s too athletic to be watching.”

If Green decides to return for a sixth year, that means there will be seven projected quarterbacks on next season’s roster, with the six current quarterbacks and four-star recruit Aidan Atkinson compiling the room. This decade, NU has never had more than six listed quarterbacks on the roster at once.

Whittaker is also far from the first quarterback to move positions. Starting punter Dan Kubiuk changed positions after three years as a quarterback, while Evan Watkins moved from quarterback to superback in 2011 and Lloyd Yates moved from quarterback to wide receiver in 2017.

Whittaker said for now, he’s a quarterback. But if he’s asked to move back to superback, he would do it. Either way, he said it’s not his decision to make.

“For me, it’s just like, I want to get on the field,” Whittaker said. “But at the end of the day it’s just what’s best for the team.”

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Twitter: @thepeterwarren