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Converted nose tackle Nikita Whitlock making himself noticed with Giants

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Whitlock is now an NFL fullback.

Nikita Whitlock
Nikita Whitlock
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Nikita Whitlock was confused by the request. He had played nose tackle since Pee Wee football. Had been Player of the Year at the position as a Texas high schooler. Had been a starter at the nose nearly his entire career at Wake Forest. Yet, here he was as a senior listening to a Demon Deacons coach tell him that "you might want to start catching some balls."

"I said 'what do you mean?,' " Whitlock said during a recent conversation before a training camp practice with the New York Giants at Quest Diagnostics Training Center. " He said ‘everybody I talk to sees you as a converted fullback.' "

Everybody, that is, who thought Whitlock had the ability to play in the NFL.

"I had never played fullback, never played offense," Whitlock said.

Why did teams see Whitlock as a fullback, a position utterly foreign to him, rather than the position he had been excelling at since he was a little kid? It's simple. Whitlock is all of 5-foot-10 and 250 pounds. That's about five inches too short and 50-75 pounds too light to handle defensive tackle in the NFL.

Not that Whitlock wouldn't mind trying.

"I was hoping. There was still a prayer there. If anybody gives me a chance I'll still do it," Whitlock said. "That's my passion. I love that position."

This isn't the first time he has been told he couldn't be a nose tackle any longer. Wake Forest coaches told him the same thing originally, and moved him to linebacker. Injuries forced them to put him back at nose tackle early in his freshman year. He never left.

Fullback, though, is where Whitlock, 24, hopes his NFL future will be.

After finishing his career at Wake Forest in 2013, he was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent. He was cut there at the end of the preseason and landed with the Dallas Cowboys, where he was on and off their practice squad a couple of times. The Cowboys cut him loose for the final time in November, and the Giants added him to their practice squad in late December. When the season ended, they signed Whitlock to a reserve/futures contract.

Whitlock has enjoyed learning the fullback position, calling it "a breath of fresh air."

"Learning something new, learning how to look at defenses from the other side, learning how to block and drive. Everything's new," Whitlock said. "It's kind of like being in Pee Wee again where you're just learning so much. I'm enjoying it."

What has been the biggest adjustment in switching sides of the ball?

"It has to be the mindset. Catching the ball, thank the Lord, came natural to me, I don't drop many balls. But the mindset when I played defense I was more reactive, there's much more reactiveness to the defensive side of the ball," Whitlock said. "I'm trying to learn how to become more proactive on the offensive side, where you see things happen before they happen. Instead of reacting you have to see them happen and get there and anticipate.

"Defense, man, you just went to the ball. Someone got in your way you just ran them over or you went past them. There's a lot more proactiveness to the offensive side of the ball. That's the biggest thing."

Whitlock has been impressive during his time with the Giants. He is a ball of energy. On offense, he explodes out of his stance looking for someone to hit. On special teams he is a thunderous blocker and a fearless cover man.

Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars Whitlock made a solo tackle on a kickoff at thr 16-yard line, a play that head coach Tom Coughlin highlighted post game.

"I just ran down there, I saw the wedge to my right, they gave me a single block, Coach Quinn and Coach Izzo have really been working with us on not taking the easy route," Whitlock said. "I saw it, my keys told me to go inside, I crossed the face and made a good play."

Whitlock has gotten the attention of at least one teammate. During an appearance on the 'Big Blue Chat' podcast with myself and Pat Traina (Bleacher Report/Inside Football), veteran Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas singled out Whitlock as a player who had impressed him.

"He's very impressive. You don't really see him a lot, kinda small in stature, but he's one of the strongest guys on the team. Not even pound for pound -- he's one of the strongest guys on the team. He's very smart, very intuitive. Really good on special teams," Casillas said.

"I watch him, gotta go against him, he plays fullback ... we bang against each other. He plays with tremendous pop, power, strength and he plays very well on special teams That's one guy who I had no idea who he was, and he's one of the better guys out here. ... He's a football player."

Whitlock was aware of Casillas' remarks, saying the two had discussed them.

"That's a great honor. Jonathan I see as one of the better linebackers here, he's a great athlete, great player, he's been doing it a long time. For someone like that, an older vet, who's been in the league and he's not only a defensive guy, he's a special teams guy, too. He does everything," Whitlock said. "For him to come out and say that in public that's really saying a lot. It just makes me want to play and show everybody that what he sees isn't just a fluke."

Impressive or not, however, Whitlock has a difficult path to making it with the Giants. NFL team rarely keep two fullbacks -- some don't keep any -- and the Giants have an established, quality veteran fullback in Henry Hynoski.

"Right now my focus is to be the best fullback I can be and being the best special teams player I can," Whitlock said. "I went through the process last year and what I learned was if you put good film out you'll end up somewhere.

"I'm not really focusing on making the team. I'm just focusing on being the best player I can be."

His efforts are being noticed.