From time to time TNIAAM gets to sit down with current and former Syracuse Orange players and coaches. We’d do more of it, but between both Sean and I living 3,000 miles from campus, all the #jokesandgarbage we need to churn out here and my weekly play-calling rants, it can be tough to fit in sometimes.
Luckily this week, one former Syracuse player actually reached out to us directly. Julian Whigham, Orange defensive back from 2012-2015, lent some time to discuss the NFL tryout process, his time at SU, Dino Babers’s new regime and more during a .
Also, as we touch on toward the end of the interview, Julian’s going to be joining us here on TNIAAM to discuss the Orange defense on a weekly basis. So for those who are more defensively-minded, you actually get a more qualified opinion about that side of the ball now (vs. ALL CAPS yelling about the offense by me).
Say hi to Julian in the comments, and welcome him aboard. His first piece on the defense goes up tomorrow.
John: After four years at SU, what were some of the highlights for you career-wise?
Julian: I think my highlights probably start my sophomore year. I actually can go back to my freshman year. My first game against UConn, I really got some significant time. That was a lot of fun. Just getting that first experience; playing on defense.
And then I think my favorite moment playing at SU came my sophomore year. It was an interception against Clemson. It was the first interception Tajh Boyd had thrown in a few hundred passes. I had known all week I was going to get him. I don’t know how it happened but I just went up there with one hand and brought it down. It was just – it was an amazing play. I surprised myself. My mom was super proud. So, that was a lot of fun and that definitely might be number one on my list of moments at Syracuse.
John: I know in 2014 you had that scary injury against Florida State. What was going on in your mind afterward? Obviously, you missed the rest of the season. Were there concerns long-term or were you just focused on recovery?
Julian: Yeah, I mean the biggest thing was just being focused on recovery. Once I got to the hospital they calmed me down, and once I got around my family that was a big help. My mom, my sister, my uncle, they were all at the game so they were seeing me at the hospital and once I got into ICU and got a chance to calm me down they told me everything that was going on.
I felt pretty good about my recovery. It was scary at the time because I really didn’t know what was going on — it was the first time something like that had happened to me and when they finally explained everything and how the recovery would go I felt great about everything. I was really excited to get back on the field. Unfortunately I couldn’t (right away), but long term I knew I’d still be able to play football and that was the biggest thing for me.
John: So your senior year, SU started out really well (3-0), and then kind of hit a tough part of the schedule. Some things didn’t work out as planned and Scott Shafer ended up being released as head coach. What was going through your mind and some of the team’s mind as the calls around his job security were getting louder, and maybe some of the criticisms were rising up on that from the fan base?
Julian: Me and Coach Shafer actually had a really great relationship — I had a good relationship with him, along with Coach (John) Anselmo with Doug Marrone, who was one of the primary recruiters down in South Florida with me. And, ever since he came down to West Palm and met me at an IHOP, we just had a really special connection. I was always able to go into his office and talk to him.
He’s probably one of the greatest coaches I have ever had, as far as having a relationship outside of football. So it was always hard – with me as a player – I really cared about him and to see all that criticism on his end and as a teammate and as a senior the biggest goal is really to just rally the troops, rally your guys, to stay behind him and stick to what we’re doing. Commit to the process of playing football and winning games.
But as it builds up, and those loses kept hitting, you could kind of feel the coaching staff, the players and everyone still kinda like, “What’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen?” And that’s hard to deal with, especially at a college program that’s had so much turnover the last few years. Unfortunately, things went the way they did. I’m not sure if he’s coaching right now, but I’m sure he’ll get back on his feet and it looks like Syracuse is headed in a good direction right now as well so it might end up well on both ends.
John: Have you been up to campus yet since Coach Babers took over?
Julian: Yeah, I have. I was actually up there last week for a little while. I got to catch a game, I was up there for a month actually, and I caught their, what was it, the second game of the year vs, USF.
I got to catch the USF game when I was up there for a little while, just to be around the guys for a little bit. I was actually visiting my girlfriend. But yeah, I was up there. I got to talk to Coach Babers. I met him during my Pro Day and he was actually recruiting me when I was in high school when he was at Bowling Green. So we had a little relationship there and he’s a good dude. I think he’s really good for the program so I’ll be excited to see what he does with it.
John: Yeah, what have you seen so far? Obviously you were a defensive player but Babers’s calling card is the offense. I guess first we can focus on that. What are you seeing in the offense differently this year versus what you say maybe in your last year or two at SU?
Julian: The tempo stands out the most. They’re snapping the ball at an Oregon/Baylor pace and then (Eric) Dungey slinging the ball, what 30, 40 even 50 times a game if he can. So they’re really trying to air it out and I am really excited to see what the receivers are going to do.
You know, I didn’t even know they had that Amba Etta-Tawo dude until he started taking off with these 100-yard games every week. But it’s really exciting to see the receivers kinda step up, because I think for the last few years, the Syracuse passing offense has been criticized a lot. Receivers had no touchdowns. Quarterbacks just struggled getting the ball downfield. So on the turnaround to just airing it out every play just about is really exciting to watch and I think it’s a great brand of football for a Syracuse Orange team that plays in a Dome with very fast turf.
John: On the defensive side, Brian Ward comes in and really changes a lot of what the team did when you were there. You guys ran a very blitz-heavy, big-play focused defense and now this defense is a Tampa-2, and a lot more coverage oriented. What are some things you’ve seen this season that you’ve liked, and maybe some things that have improved over the course of the season.
Julian: I’m always watching the secondary – curious to know how they’re doing. So obviously with the switch to the Tampa-2, when I was talking to the guys I’m like man, “I’m jealous.” That was my favorite thing — to be able to watch the quarterback sit in the zone and go get the ball. With Corey Winfield, who was the one I was really talking to about it – I was excited to see him play. He has been doing a great job and the way the safeties have played this last game - Rodney Williams really stepped up and got himself an interception.
I’m really happy these guys are back to making plays and I think this defense is built for a secondary to make plays. You know, they’re sitting back, they’re watching the quarterback, they’re taking up spaces. As time goes by they’ll be able to tighten it up, but I am really proud of this secondary growing up before our eyes and starting to make some plays. Zaire Franklin, he’s become a true leader on the defense – got a pick against Notre Dame. So I am really excited to see this defense stepping up a little bit, making key third down stops against a ranked Virginia Tech team. Once they get their stride, I think the Syracuse defense will be okay.
John: I’ve definitely notice a big step up in the last few weeks. Injuries have obviously played a role this year, as they have for the last two or three years, too. What kind of impact does that have on a team – mentally, physically? You can only say “next man up” so many times before you’re running out of spots on the depth chart.
Julian: You know, when Antwan Cordy went down I really didn’t know what was going to happen because he’s the best player on our defense. Smallest guy on the team, but he’s a real big spark plug for the defense. So when he went out, you didn’t know who was going to step up. That’s hard to replace – and when you are losing guys that are bringing something to the table that’s hard to replace, that’s when you see some drop-off sometimes in play.
That’s why we’ve been calling for the other safeties to kind of step up and lead the group a little bit, because Cordy does that so well. When there’s injuries like that it has to be a group effort all around, depending on each unit. And it’s hard to replace one guy when he brings so much to the table, but I think this Syracuse group is doing a great job at really communicating as a team and really taking on a team philosophy as far as trying to win games.
John: Speaking of team philosophy, what was your reaction when you saw Coach Babers’s hype video in the locker room there?
Julian: That was amazing. You know, I was ready to strap‘em up again and get out there with them. That was just amazing – I felt it. Sitting there, I’m getting hyped up. The emotions are flowing, I’m so proud of those guys. That was a really heartfelt win – you can see it in all of their faces how excited they were and that’s what college football is about. You know, being an underdog who is not supposed to win these games and then coming out and doing what they did. That is incredible.
Coach Babers man, you could see it on his face. He dropped down twice, shaking his head like this is unbelievable and you just feel that. You don’t see that in the NFL game very much. That’s a very college-specific type of atmosphere and it’s really great when it’s in the Syracuse locker room. That’s really great to see.
John: So, which guys do you feel like you’ve kept close ties on since you left? Maybe some of the guys that are still on the team that you think either may break out this year or maybe as their careers keep going.
Julian: I already mentioned Cordy, but I can’t say enough about him. He’s out this year so I guess next year he counts as a breakout player – because we didn’t really get to see him too much this year. Like I said, he is the smallest guy on the team, but he has the most talent in that body of his. You know, he can tackle, he can cover, he can really do it all and if he was three inches taller I really think he would be a high draft pick.
He’s got so much ability and that Syracuse defense is really so much better when he is on the field. On the offensive side I am really waiting for Steve Ishmael to step up and make some plays. I just remember covering him in practice every day. Because I cover NFL receivers now, and his technique is very reminiscent of guys I’ve seen at the next level. So I am just waiting for him to really step up and make some plays for this offense because I know he can do it. He’s got great hands, great size and his route running is second to none so I am really excited to see when he starts to break out as a player and when he does that Syracuse offense is just going to take it to another level.
John: You’ve been trying out for the NFL. Do you want to describe that process, just in terms of how things have changed from when you played in college, and how things are different from when you were at SU?
Julian: A ton of things are different. My first impression was the work environment they create as soon as you get there. In college, you have school every day. You’re going to class from 8-2. You’re trying to squeeze a lunch in there somewhere. You come to practice, but not every day. Some guys are just a little bit out of it, and it’s slower than it should be. I think that happens across every college campus.
But in the NFL, you have to bring your A-game every dang practice. If you don’t, you will get caught with your pants down. Guys are fighting for spots. Guys are trying to make money, feed their families and take care of the people around them. And it’s a dogfight every day. Practices are no joke. People come out smiling, having a good time. We’re obviously playing a game we love.
But it’s incredible competition throughout the day, and in the NFL, that continues throughout the season. It’s not just a preseason thing or an offseason thing. You have to continue to produce every day to keep your spot – unless you’re a guaranteed, $10 million contract guy. But those guys are huge contract guys for a reason. They do it.
It’s just a crazy work environment you have to adjust to immediately or you won’t survive.
As far as my process, personally, with the Bills and with the Steelers – you know, my time with the Bills was shorter than I thought it was going to be. They had needs somewhere else. I was really proud of the way I came along. At Syracuse, during my junior year and some of my senior year, I just had this mental block sometimes in terms of covering the deep ball. After awhile, it was external pressure I wasn’t able to handle the right way.
But as soon as I got to Buffalo, coaches and scouts they said “you know, we have to fix this right away, because we know you can do it. We’re going to handle this right now.” Like I said, it’s that work environment. Otherwise, you can’t be (in the NFL). They worked with me right away, got my mind back right. To get to that situation in Pittsburgh, it was the same. They worked with me and took care of me. It was very motivating to keep at it because you never know when another opportunity will come. Just have to keep developing my body and stick to this process as an athlete.
John: Looking forward, what’s next for you? Is it football? Writing? Coaching?
Julian: The biggest thing for me is that I want to play ball for as long as I can. My time in Pittsburgh and Buffalo showed me that I do have the ability to play professional football; the coaches were very supportive of that.
I want to play as long as I can, and I believe that I’m going to get another opportunity. I’m also smart enough to know that football doesn’t last forever. My career could be over already. I don’t know. I need to secure some other options.
For the longest time, I’ve had a huge interest in journalism. My major was political science because I had an interest there. You can read my Twitter feed and you see that interest sometimes in the things I may talk about. But even with the political science major, writing was just something I loved to do. I enjoyed papers way more than tests. And getting an opportunity to try journalism out is huge for me, because I love it.
... I really want to try my hand at journalism. I was big on law school for a second, but I had a real calling to journalism. I love being able to speak and have an educated opinion that I can spread to a lot of people. And with journalism, I’m just really close with it and I’m excited to get into it.
It’s a huge opportunity with (TNIAAM) and I’m really excited to do this, get on my way to Newhouse and get a chance to explore writing.
Thanks for taking the time with us, Julian. And welcome to TNIAAM!