SALT LAKE CITY — After most of his teammates had left the practice field one day last week, Utah linebacker Jason Whittingham was still out there running extra gassers — doing so of his own volition.
As the nephew of head coach Kyle Whittingham, the redshirt freshman is determined to show he's got game to go along with his name.
"I've got to prove myself not only to my teammates but to my uncle as well because he's the one who decided to give me my scholarship," Jason said. "I have to let them know that they made the right decision."
The Utes, however, already know it.
Jason is slated to be a starter on every special teams unit this season and is the backup at stud linebacker, holding a similar position as an inside 'backer in the nickel package.
"He's a guy who is going to be a factor for us this year," Kyle said, while noting that every player at Utah is treated the same and that Jason has earned his spots on the depth chart. "I haven't forced him to do anything extra but I think he's pressing and trying to prove that he belongs."
Jason's determination has paid off in the past.
As a senior at Timpview High School in 2009, he proved to be a quick study in the shot put. After being enlisted to join a team in need of more points in field events, Whittingham rose to the top in just two weeks — winning individual and team titles at the state meet following a crash course in the sport from his father, Cary.
The elder Whittingham, who had a stellar football career at BYU, broke the state record in the shot put during his four-year track career at Provo High School. Cary is convinced Jason would have done the same if he had invested a similar amount of time into the sport.
Jason's passions, however, were baseball and football. He pursued the latter after earning all-state honors as a senior. The fact that Utah was the only major program to actively recruit him has served as motivation and put a self-described "chip on his shoulder."
The lack of recruiting attention, though, likely has more to do with the Whittingham name than anything else. Cary acknowledged that the close-knit family bond left little doubt as to where his son would play his college ball if an opportunity arose.
"My take on the non-recruiting is I think people assumed he was going to come our way," Kyle said while noting that Jason was a very good high school player and everything you look for in a linebacker.
"He loves football," Cary said. "He's hard-working and is a physical specimen."
At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Jason has a lot of tools for the game. Kyle compares his size and skills to those of Cary, noting that both of them are good ballplayers.
Cary, though, shakes off any comparisons to the Whittingham family tree. Jason, he explained, is probably more athletic than all of them.
And he's seemingly getting better with age.
Cary considers Jason "a real late bloomer" who got bigger and more explosive as a high school senior. The physical development continued when Jason left to serve an LDS Church mission in South Carolina and during a redshirt year at Utah that followed.
"I still see him maturing and improving quite a bit just based on that," said Cary, who wouldn't be surprised to see Jason add more height and weight to his frame at Utah.
With his size and strength, Jason is confident he can play major college football. He considers his quick rise up the depth chart as a testimony to the hard work and dedication he has put in since returning from his mission.
"It's not easy coming back after two years and getting right back into the swing of things," Jason said. "But I've been back about a year now. I've worked my way back and I feel comfortable with where I am."
Being the head coach's nephew, though, will always have its challenges. Cary considers it a double-edged sword for Jason — providing both motivation and pressure.
The combination, thereof, could have positive ramifications.
"(Jason) doesn't need to prove anything because he really has earned everything he has gotten. His uncle is not going to give him anything he has not earned," Cary said. "(Jason) is 100 percent committed to showing that there's absolutely no favoritism there and he'll work as hard as it takes to convince other people of that."
Northern Colorado at Utah
Thursday. 5:15 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks Radio: ESPN 700Season opener
Washington State at BYU
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Thursday, 6:15 p.m. MT
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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