Have you ever been an understudy? Have you ever had to play second fiddle to someone you knew in your heart of hearts you were better than? There aren’t many more grounding situations in life than realizing you have to wait your turn in line when you’re raring to launch. Impatience, among other things, can be agonizing.
The moment where glorious opportunity doesn’t arrive and you realize the person you thought you were more talented than actually might be better can be harrowing. Even if they legitimately aren’t, you realize you’re not going to eventually leapfrog them and fulfill your dreams by maintaining the status quo. It’s that moment where, in order to reach your goals in a roundabout fashion, it’s necessary to humble yourself. The time comes where you either recalibrate, or sulk and drown in your self-pity.
That’s the difficult choice that Kerrith Whyte Jr. was faced with for the last few years of his collegiate career. The backup to Devin Singletary at Florida Atlantic University — a younger touchdown machine — Whyte Jr. could’ve either pouted and let the chips fall where they may. Chips that mind you, he had no control over. Or he could’ve taken matters into his own hands and become an underrated electric weapon for the Owls. This wasn’t a Sophie’s choice. One path objectively was more deserving of Whyte Jr’s time—accepting his reality and working to improve — and pouting wasn’t. After taking the high road on both offense and special teams, and everyone associated with him was better off for it.
Now a seventh-round pick, the 22-year-old Whyte Jr. faces a similar situation with the Bears. He joins a loaded running back room full of veteran experience and youthful talent like Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery on offense, and already has one of pro football’s premier kick returners in Cordarrelle Patterson in front of him on the third phase. But to think anyone’s standing in his way, other than himself, would be misguided.
To get a proper sense of how Whyte Jr. plans to clear his coming NFL hurdles, I spoke with Cyrus Smith—managing editor of SB Nation’s Underdog Dynasty—and was enlightened as to how being overlooked hardened one of the Bears’ new running backs. None of this is fresh territory for Whyte Jr., and he wouldn’t change a thing.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
How do you think Whyte Jr. fits what the Bears want to accomplish on offense and special teams? What are his greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Cyrus Smith: Ideally, the Bears use Whyte Jr. the same way they’ve used Cohen, but in more of a conventional manner. I’m sure there’s a few people who think the Bears drafted Cohen’s replacement due to Whyte Jr. being a burner. On paper, both appear to be the same type of back, but I see Whyte Jr. as more than a gadget player.
At Florida Atlantic under Lane Kiffin’s zone read rushing attack, Whyte Jr. outflanked defenses with his speed and ran in between the tackles a lot harder than your typical scat back. Seeing as how he was the No. 2 behind Singletary, Whyte Jr. often feasted on defenses who were battered and tired. I always looked forward to seeing how he could manage the load of being a No. 1 back, as he doesn’t have much experience in that role. On special teams, Whyte Jr. should be terrific as he’s the only player in FAU history with a kickoff return for a touchdown (two). Rarely was there was a case where he didn’t give FAU good field position (an average of 26.1 yards per return).
There was never a worry about him putting the ball on the ground (zero career fumbles) or putting the Owls behind the eight-ball.
Whyte Jr. had to accept a backseat in snaps. Yet, over the duration of his career, he proved to be one of college football’s most productive returners and bang-for-your-buck weapons anyway. What allows him to make the most of his chances? How did FAU’s coaches find him a natural role?
CS: Whyte Jr. was too good to leave off the field. As a freshman he looked capable of being the No. 2 back, but had to sit behind the aforementioned Singletary and Greg Howell; another runner who was able to find a home in the NFL with the Texans after his college career. Rather than sulk, Whyte Jr. carved out a role as a special teams ace. When Kiffin arrived during his sophomore year, Whyte Jr. elevated his game and proved to the coaching staff that he was a guy who could spell Singletary when need be. As a junior, he proved he was more than a back who should be used sparsely. He was someone who could be featured on offense as part of a dynamic one-two rushing attack for the Owls.
Considering the depth at running back in Chicago, it wouldn’t surprise me if Whyte Jr. followed this same career path as a member of the Bears.
Whyte Jr. joins a crowded running back and special teams room in Chicago, already making him a long shot for the final roster. What’s a concerning aspect you saw from his college career that could make these obstacles especially difficult to clear? What’s encouraging?
CS: The situation Whyte Jr. faces in Chicago is eerily similar to one he left in Boca Raton, Florida. The opportunity for repetitions to show he belongs will be rare. Even if he makes the most of the opportunities he’ll be given it won’t guarantee anything. However, I would be very surprised if he made it easy for Matt Nagy to cut him. Whyte Jr.’s experience in a similar situation at Florida Atlantic should give him a leg up on what to expect and excel during Chicago’s minicamp.
As for any potential weaknesses, nothing in particular comes to mind. I would’ve loved to see him featured more as a pass catcher (22 career receptions), but due to inconsistency at quarterback, neither Whyte Jr. or Singletary ever got a worthy chance to shine in that role. There’s a lack of live repetitions there that he’ll have to get used to as pro.
The Bears’ offense needs more home-run hitters and it seems they have exactly that with Whyte Jr. He seems to thrive, explosively so, in a limited role. Why? Is there a case to be made he could’ve perhaps reasonably supplanted Singletary in some fashion?
CS: Over Whyte Jr.’s career, Kiffin would alternate between who would start drives as Florida Atlantic’s feature back. Most of the time it would be Singletary, but when it was Whyte Jr., it was usually later on in games after defenses were fatigued from trying to contain Singletary. Whyte Jr. feasted in these moments, but I can’t say he would’ve been as successful had the roles been reversed. Because of this, I can’t make the case for Whyte Jr. to have received any more carries than Singletary.
I will make a case for Whyte Jr. to have received more receptions. Kiffin and Charlie Weis Jr. (yes, Charlies Weis’ son) never featured both backs on the field at the same time as often as I would have liked. Considering how explosive both backs were, and how sketchy FAU’s vertical passing attack was, matching either back against a linebacker on wheel routes or simple flares would’ve added another welcome element to the offense. Alas, we never saw it. Whyte Jr. was also strangely never used as a punt returner despite excelling as a kickoff returner. Perhaps the Bears will see something different.
Beyond his noticeable speed, why is Whyte Jr. such an effective returner in terms of special teams schemes? Is it anything the Bears’ third phase could key in on? How might an established returner like Patterson rub off as a mentor?
CS: What I loved about Whyte Jr.’s game as a return specialist is that it he always made sure to get downfield fast. Whyte Jr. may be fast independently, but he’s not a track guy playing football. You’re not going to see a lot of dancing around with the ball in his hands or any runs to the sideline so he can avoid contact. He’s a natural one-cut, downfield player.
Watch his first career kickoff return for a touchdown against Louisiana Tech.
Note Whyte Jr’s natural instinct to get downfield and run through tacklers. Despite never being the featured guy, Whyte Jr. and Singletary seemed to have a great relationship. Many believed Singletary was grooming Whyte Jr. for when he was to leave. They both happened to come out of the same draft is all. It would be a surprise if Whyte Jr. didn’t take well to a possible mentorship with Patterson.
You’re a part of the Bears’ coaching staff. How do you approach Whyte Jr.’s development? Where, if anywhere, can he find an effective role in Chicago? Do you see him as an immediate impact player, or a project? How would you describe his ceiling?
CS: Whatever football fans think of Kiffin, no one can debate his coaching acumen. Whyte Jr. will be prepared for the next level. If Nagy wanted to rely on him as a third-down back right now, he could play the part adequately. He’s an explosive player they have to find a place for.
With that said, I view Whyte Jr. as an overall project. Blitz pickup is something he needs to work on considering he never did it at FAU. On special teams I see him as an immediate contributor, but on offense I’d like to see more from him as it pertains to being an every-down back. He could carve out a role similar to Kenjon Barner, where he starts as a special teams contributor before settling in as a third-down back and contributor for a playoff team.
The best-case scenario for Whyte is turning into someone like the Saints’ Alvin Kamara: A matchup problem out of the backfield with speed and power any time he touches the ball. While that may seem like hyperbole considering Kamara’s star status, Whyte Jr. was truly that dangerous of a player during his time at FAU.
What’s your favorite story, the one anecdote encapsulating Whyte Jr.’s career at FAU?
CS: Whyte Jr. was routinely mentioned as one of the best singers on FAU’s roster. Should the Bears somehow end up on Hard Knocks and we see some segments of rookie hazing, his voice will be featured without question. When it comes to football, I can’t forget Whyte Jr. being the first and only player with a kickoff return for a touchdown in FAU history. Had Singletary not been on the team, Whyte Jr. would have been just as capable of supplanting Alfred Morris as the best running back in school history. Rather than Singletary, Whyte Jr. would have been the record-holder for the best rushing season in school history. But history didn’t play out that way.
Although he was never given those opportunities to put his name in the backfield record books, he was given the chance to etch his name in the record book as the best return specialist in school history. And he ran with it. In a nutshell, that defines Whyte Jr’s collegiate career—resiliency.