Manhattan seemed like a big place to Cody Whitehair when he enrolled at Kansas State four years ago.
Because of growing up in Abilene, a town of roughly 6,800, the packed streets running through the K-State campus and the businesses across Manhattan made his new home, a town of approximately 56,000, seem bigger than it actually was.
So you can imagine his shock when he traveled to much larger cities as an offensive lineman on the K-State football team. He has been to Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Phoenix and San Antonio, some of the biggest cities in the nation. At each location, he marveled at the dense traffic, noting that you can’t do anything in a densely populated area without it taking an extra 15 minutes.
“I think I will just go back to Abilene,” Whitehair said when speaking about his travels.
He has taken a much different approach on the football field.
At 6 foot 4 and 305 pounds, Whitehair has the ideal body to play center or guard, yet he enters his senior season as one of the most respected left tackles in the Big 12, if not the nation. It’s the position many consider to be the most important on the offensive line, the guy that defends his quarterback’s blind side by constantly fighting off determined defensive ends. He played right tackle as a freshman and also spent many games at left guard, collecting all-conference honors along the way.
But that wasn’t enough. Whitehair wanted the extra responsibilities that come with protecting the left side of K-State’s offensive line. Even though he lacks the height and length of the prototypical left tackle, he quickly volunteered to change positions when there was an opening.
“It is a very vital position to play,” Whitehair said. “You want your most experienced lineman to be there.”
That is certainly Whitehair, a four-year starter who has played nearly every snap of his last 13 games at left tackle.
“There isn’t a person on our team that works harder,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He has the intrinsic values that you hear me talking about all the time.”
“He has stepped up as a leader and as a captain,” added K-State cornerback Morgan Burns. “He sets a great example for the rest of the offensive line.”
Teammates need only study his blocking techniques to understand Whitehair. The two K-State linemen who served at left tackle before him were giants, each of them towering above the rest of the roster at 6-8 or 6-9. They were power forwards with long arms and heft. One of them, Cornelius Lucas, is now blocking for the Detroit Lions. They defended a pass rush with their upper bodies.
Whitehair uses a different strategy that requires more effort, but produces similar results.
“It’s all about my quickness,” Whitehair said. “Everyone knows I am a guard body playing tackle. I just try to keep my body in the best position it can be in to help me win that play.”
Whitehair won more plays than he lost a year ago, regularly giving then-quarterback Jake Waters time to survey the field and throw accurate passes. This year, with a new quarterback and new receivers, he may be tasked with blocking for the run more often, but he is up for the challenge.
When he switched to left tackle, he knew more responsibilities were on the way. That includes taking over as a leader for former center B.J. Finney. Like Finney, Whitehair will spend five years at K-State after redshirting in 2011. He dedicated the offseason to improving his individual skills and helping his teammates. Four starters return, and he has pushed them.
Whitehair may play the most important position on the offensive line, but he also knows how important it is for his line to block as a unit.
“Left tackle has value, but I think every position on the offensive line has value,” Whitehair said. “It takes an offensive line to make a play go. If you don’t have every piece to the puzzle, then it is hard to get anything going.”