Dameron names Whitlow outright starter

Aldo Soto, Sports Editor

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Jalen Whitlow was ready to transfer the same day he was told he would no longer be a quarterback for Kentucky.

“They wanted to change my position into wide receiver and I wanted to stay as a quarterback,” Whitlow said. “We had a disagreement and I was looking to transfer pretty much that same day.”

During spring ball in April, Whitlow made his decision just like Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops made his. Kentucky wanted to go in a different direction at quarterback, after Whitlow started 15 games for the Wildcats in two seasons. The dual-threat quarterback began his search for a new school immediately.

While Whitlow was looking for a change in scenery, the Eastern football team entered its spring ball with a plethora of quarterbacks on its roster, all trying to win the starting quarterback job. Jimmy Garoppolo was getting ready to enter the NFL Draft, while red-shirt senior Andrew Manley emerged as the starter for the Panthers.

Yet, first-year offensive coordinator with Eastern Greg Stevens had a call to make when news spread that Whitlow was searching for a new team.

Within the week of receiving the news that he was being switched to wide receiver, Whitlow picked up his phone when Stevens came a calling.

“That week is when I got the call from coach Stevens and he told me they were interested in me,” Whitlow said.

A month later, after a visit to Eastern’s campus, it was a done deal. Whitlow was a Panther.

***

On Dec. 2, 2011, Whitlow, as a backup to Prattville High School quarterback Justin Thomas, celebrated a class 6A Alabama state title. Although Whitlow only received about one-third of the snaps at quarterback, he was still ranked highly across the nation.

Although Whitlow originally committed to Arkansas State, which he later rescinded because its coach Hugh Freeze left for Ole Miss, he eventually landed at Kentucky.

Whitlow has always been known for his running ability. Not only was he a quarterback in high school, he also lined up as a wide receiver. At Prattville, Whitlow threw seven touchdown passes, rushed for 13 and caught two.

He left high school as the No. 12 ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation. But don’t tell Whitlow he is a running quarterback only. As Kentucky soon learned that would be a mistake.

***

Being moved from quarterback to wide receiver was taken as a slight for Whitlow. Once he knew he was going to transfer he used Kentucky’s decision as motivation.

“It was maybe what I needed,” he said. “I know that once that happened I’ve never worked so hard in my life and I continue to do that. So, I’m thankful for it really.”

First-year head coach Kim Dameron has been clear since day one that he wants the opposing defense to defend all 11 players on every single play.

A quarterback with running ability was essential, especially with Stevens’ offensive system that saw his previous quarterback rush for 1,046 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in 2013 at Southeastern Louisiana.

Whitlow was a perfect match, but that didn’t mean he was the automatic starter when he arrived to Eastern in May. Once the season started, the decision still had not been made, as Dameron elected to go with a dual-quarterback system, with Whitlow sharing time with Manley.

After a 0-3 start to the season, though, Dameron made a decision. Manley will still receive some playing, but the definitive starter is Whitlow.

***

In 1968, Joe Davis rushed for 134 yards against Bradley, setting a new Eastern quarterback rushing record. Almost half a century passed before that record was broken.

Starting Ohio Valley Conference play this season, Dameron had one clear objective – run the football.

Whitlow entered Saturday’s game against Austin Peay coming off a three-interception performance against Illinois State on Sept. 13. Whitlow also had 30 yards against the Redbirds that was a season-low.

But the time was right. After three losses and minimal point production from the offense, Dameron looked at Eastern’s OVC opener as the perfect opportunity to run. And run a lot.

“I felt we didn’t do much of the QB run play in the first couple games and we felt that we’re in league (play) and this was the week to break it out,” Dameron said.

Eastern was ahead 35-7 in the third quarter over Austin Peay. Facing a 2nd-and-7 from the Governors’ 21-yard line. Whitlow took the snap from center and rushed up field. He was tackled shy of the goal-line, but the 20-yard dash established a new quarterback rushing record for Eastern. At 137 yards rushing, Whitlow ended as the Panthers’ leading rusher in their 63-7 win against Austin Peay.

But do not tell Dameron that Whitlow is only a running quarterback.

“All you have to do is look at what he did statistically,” Dameron said. “He rushed for about 150 and he threw for about 150. That’s pretty balanced.”

Along with his 137 rushing yards Saturday, Whitlow scored two, six-yard rushing touchdowns, while throwing for 159 yards and two passing touchdowns.

For anyone thinking Whitlow can only run, he has one clear message.

“Most people – they don’t know, they don’t study us and watch practice everyday,” Whitlow said.

For the time being Dameron has made his decision. Whitlow is Eastern’s starter and going forward the quarterback is only worried about executing.

Is he a runner or a passer?

“I’m whatever the team needs me to be,” Whitlow said.

Aldo Soto (@AldoSoto21) can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]