Thursday, September 21, 2006

Draft Doubters Motivate Whitner

By John Wawrow

Associated Press

September 21, 2006

ORCHARD PARK— Donte Whitner hasn’t forgotten how the NFL draft gurus — and that includes you, Mel Kiper — criticized the Buffalo Bills for selecting the strong safety too early last spring.

“You just kind of store that,” Whitner said, referring specifically to Kiper, ESPN’s longtime draft analyst. “You want to prove those guys wrong.”

Two games and two starts into his first NFL season, Whitner has not looked out of place in a young defensive unit that had seven sacks and keyed Buffalo’s 16-6 win at Miami last weekend. Rushed into a starting role after veteran Matt Bowen was hurt in training camp, Whitner has 14 tackles and one interception heading into Buffalo’s home-opener against the New York Jets on Sunday.

“He’s talented. He’s fast. He likes to play the game, and he’ll hit you,” coach Dick Jauron said. “Those are all things that translate to our sport.”

While Jauron cautioned that Whitner is still learning, what’s impressive is how quickly the youngest player on the team’s roster — he turned 21 in July — has picked up the Bills defensive scheme in a relatively short period of time.

“Coming from Ohio State and playing in a lot of big games has really prepared me for this level,” he said. “I don’t really get rattled.”

Whitner speaks with a matter-of-fact, look-you-dead-in-the-eye confidence that most rookies lack. What he’s not is overconfident, rarely drawing attention to himself on or off the field.

“With Donte, he’s a very mature player. He’s young, but he’s mature,” veteran linebacker London Fletcher said.

Added defensive coordinator Perry Fewell: “The thing about Donte is, once he gets it, he’s got it.”

Whitner credited two of his former coaches for playing key roles in his development. First there was Ted Ginn Sr. in high school, followed by Mel Tucker, the former Ohio State assistant, who’s now the Cleveland Browns defensive backs coach.

Referring to Tucker, Whitner said: “He used to call down from the (coach’s) box and tell me, ‘Go out there and make plays because you’re the best player on this field.’ He always believed in me before anybody else did.”

Now it’s making believers out of everyone else who projected Whitner of being a mid-range first-round pick.

Count Ralph Wilson among the impressed. Following the Miami game, the Bills owner approached Whitner at his locker to inform the player the team made the right decision in taking him in the draft.

“He said, ‘You showed them today,”’ Whitner said. “I’m not saying I’m better than anyone or anything. But for those guys to say I was a reach, I want to go out and prove myself. And at the end of the season we’ll compare and we’ll see.”

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