Jeremiah Whitfield, a shy, precocious 3-year-old, began school on Tuesday morning in Gaithersburg as part of the Head Start program, which helps educate students of low-income families. Down the road a bit on the University of Maryland’s campus, Marcus Whitfield started another day by thinking about his son, then began preparing for another week of football.
It’s difficult reconciling academics, college sports and fatherhood, as Whitfield understands well. He starts at linebacker for the Terrapins, earning his keep by blitzing off the weak-side edge and crushing quarterbacks. He will graduate this fall with a degree in American studies. And maybe, just maybe, if his senior season unfolds as planned, the NFL will offer Whitfield a chance, so all those missed moments will be worth it.
“I guess at that point you have to make a name for yourself,” Whitfield said Tuesday. “You basically have another mouth to feed. It’s been a long ride for me, basically, in college.”
Whitfield entered Maryland as a mildly recruited linebacker from Northwest High School, choosing Maryland over offers from West Virginia, East Carolina, Buffalo and Akron. But with time he morphed from a “shy guy,” as Coach Randy Edsall put it, into arguably the senior class’s top NFL prospect.
This offseason, Whitfield replaced Darin Drakeford at the premier blitzing linebacker in defensive coordinator Brian Stewart’s 3-4 scheme and responded with 1.5 sacks against Florida International in Saturday’s season opener. Whitfield earned the defensive game ball that afternoon, but pursuant to NCAA regulations cannot actually collect the ball itself until after the season.
“I was very pleased for Marcus,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “Now you see this kid who’s emerging into a young man. He’s developed a lot more confidence in himself and he handles himself with a lot more confidence.
“Just very, very pleased with how he’s developed and how he’s come along. Again, these are things we expected out of Marcus.”
Whitfield, who is 6 feet 3 and 250 pounds, appeared in all 12 games last season and started two, one year after he played in eight games at defensive end as a sophomore. He waited his turn and transitioned to the second level, where Maryland hopes he can re-create the turmoil brought by Drakeford’s team-high six sacks last season.
Along the way, a son came into the world. The parents named him Jeremiah Marcus Whitfield, because they liked Jeremiah and the older Marcus wanted his name passed down. He sees Jeremiah every week, mostly on weekends after games and during days off. But it’s hard, not being there every day.
“It has its ups and downs, especially since he’s starting school, not being involved in the educational side,” Marcus Whitfield said. “But when I go home I try to meet his teachers. Everybody on the team wants to be an uncle, godfather. It feels like it’s a big family. He has 104 godfathers and uncles.
“Everybody wants to be around him, so they all want to mess with him. So everybody used to run up on him, so he gets a little scared here and there. But he’s always laughing and joking with them.”
Over the summer, as Whitfield prepared to assume Drakeford’s role as the resident havoc-wreaker, he and fellow linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil worked out together. Jeremiah often tagged along. He throws well but is still learning to catch. He likes eating at Gossett Team House and loves sleeping over on weekends after games, hanging out with Whitfield’s roommates and demanding an audience as he flops onto their beanbag chair.
And sometimes, when Jeremiah digs into a three-point stance, he barks “ready, set, go!” and rams into somebody, just like father does every Saturday.
“He’s a great father,” Cudjoe-Virgil said. “I can say that. We have a good relationship, we’re always buddy-buddy with each other. He’s definitely a good father. His son is just like Marcus. Quiet.”