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The Patience of Perseverance: Tyler Whiley's Road Back for One Last Chance

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Tyler Whiley

Tyler Whiley has plenty of reasons to smile these days (Photo: Hod Rabino/DevilsDigest.com)

It had taken four years to get to this point.

Four years of hard work. Four years of setbacks and switches. Four years that tested his belief and patience.

After bouncing around to different positions, the fifth-year senior had finally found a perfect fit, one that he had made his own. He’d earned rave reviews from his coaches and was poised to end his collegiate career on a well-deserved high note. 

On a sweltering August night a week into fall camp, as fans braved the heat to see their Sun Devils scrimmage, he took a field with the starting defense.

About halfway through the night, on just another routine play, he went in to make a tackle. Instead, he ended up with a broken leg. In that moment, his season—and possibly his career—ended before it ever had a chance to truly get started.

Other players may have bemoaned their bad luck and moved on. But not Tyler Whiley. He’d invested too much in this, and he'd not yet done what he had come here to do.

This injury was just going to be the latest in a long line of obstacles for him to overcome.

Six months later, on a cold February night, the Sun Devils gathered inside the Verde Dickey Dome for their third “spring” practice. During a 7-on-7 session, Whiley ran out onto the field and took some reps.

A full two months ahead of schedule.

He was going to prove it had all been worth it. 

It’s taken five years to get to this point...

*     *     *

The career stat line is pretty sparse: 18 games, six tackles, one sack, and a blocked punt across three seasons.

Yet, despite the lack of on-field production, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more respected player within the Sun Devil locker room than Tyler Whiley.

It's an unusual outcome, one that is fitting for a journey that has been anything but normal.

Whiley came to Tempe as a prized recruit, a local product thought to provide a big boost in ASU’s efforts to keep Arizona’s top talent in the state. But after his first season, he was moved from offense to defense. The next year, he was shifted to a different position. Then it happened again. And again.

Then he suffered the injury.

A player once brimming with potential had seemingly become lost in the shuffle, destined to become a footnote in a media guide. But behind the scenes, he quietly kept working, learning, waiting. He kept faith that his chance was coming.

More importantly, he kept the faith in himself.

Staying True

Like many kids in Arizona, Tyler Whiley spent much of his childhood chasing a ball around, whether it was on a baseball diamond, soccer pitch, or basketball court. At age six, he buckled up the chinstrap and started playing football.

Success was immediate. His first touchdown came on a toss play that he took 50 or 60 yards for the score.

“Just a youngin’ running out there as fast as I can,” Whiley remembered.

It was fun, sure, but football also helped satiate the competitive aspects of his personality.

“I like to win,” Whiley said. "I like to dominate the person in front of me. It’s a war out there. It’s those one-on-one battles that you have to win.”  

Over the next several years, Whiley won a lot of one-on-one battles.

"He was the biggest kid on his team, and a really talented running back,” said Christian Kirk, one of Whiley’s Pop Warner opponents and currently a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals.

By the time he enrolled at Boulder Creek High School in Anthem in 2010, Whiley was a standout football and basketball player. By his sophomore year, he had carved out roles on both of those varsity teams. In particular, he was gaining notice for his play as a wide receiver and defensive back for the Jaguars.

After two years at Boulder Creek, Whiley transferred to Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. With his eyes now on earning an athletic scholarship, the move also brought about a difficult decision to focus on football.

There were two reasons for giving up basketball, the sport he called "my first love." One was more practical.

“I wasn’t 6-foot-5,” said the 6-foot Whiley.

As for the other?

“I had gotten my first (scholarship) offer,” Whiley said. “So I wanted to try and take football as far as I can. I tried to put everything I had into it.”

That first offer came from his hometown school, Arizona State University. The day that first offer came was also the day he received his second offer, which came just 30 minutes later from...the University of Arizona. 

Whiley’s move to Chaparral also brought with it a reunion with a familiar face. In both Whiley’s junior and senior seasons, his Firebirds faced off against Christian Kirk and his Saguaro Sabercats.

Whiley HS

Whiley during his recruitment (Photo: Ralph Amsden)

In the years since facing off in Pop Warner, Whiley and Kirk had become good friends, so these two meetings on the field carried with them some extra juice. Trash talk was the order of the day.

"When we were out there on the field, we were very competitive,” Kirk remembered, “but we were still cracking jokes."

Both Whiley and Kirk—a class younger than Whiley—were standout wide receivers and defensive backs, so they squared off constantly.

"We were going against each other almost every play,” said Kirk. “It was back and forth. We almost spent the entire game going after each other. We'd always take our turns taking our shots."

However, it was Whiley and Chaparral who landed the most shots. The Firebirds came out victorious each time, winning 38-20 in 2012 and 52-27 in 2013. Over those two games, Whiley totaled 145 yards from scrimmage, made eight tackles, intercepted a pass, forced and recovered fumbles, notched a sack, and ran for a touchdown.

"You gotta give it to him, they beat us pretty good,” Kirk remembered with a laugh. “Whenever you come out with the W, there's not much you can say."

As he continued to excel, Whiley’s recruiting profile grew. He would be rated a consensus 4-star prospect by the major recruiting services. He would go on to receive offers from several Pac-12 programs, as well as schools like Nebraska, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Michigan State. Unlike many recruits, however, he didn’t much care for the attention.

“That was one of the things I wanted to get over,” said Whiley of his recruitment. “I wanted to strictly think about football through that. I didn’t want to have any recruiting worries.”

So on July 24 prior to his senior year, Whiley decided to stay home. He committed to his ASU.

“It was the tradition,” Whiley said what drew him to ASU. “I just loved the program.”

Another major factor was how close he’d be to his family. He hoped that by staying local, they would soon be cheering him on as he made plays under the lights of Sun Devil Stadium.

Instead, they became an invaluable source of support for the tough years ahead.

Starts & Restarts

Tyler Whiley was one of the crown jewels of Arizona State’s 2014 recruiting class, and he was ready to show he could live up to those expectations.

“That’s always something, but you take that on as a challenge more than anything,” he said. “I’ve never felt I had too much pressure on me ever. You gotta live up to the pressure. You gotta accept the pressure.”

However, the players inside the ASU locker room—a group coming off a Pac-12 South title and a 10-win year—had a different set of expectations for Whiley and the newcomers.

"You don't think much about the recruits coming in when you're playing,” said Jordan Simone, then a junior safety.

Given Whiley’s skill set and athleticism, different schools had envisioned him playing different positions. In ASU's case, they brought him in as a wide receiver. However, the Sun Devils’ depth chart at the position was crowded in 2014, led by future NFL Draft pick Jaelen Strong.

After being The Man in high school, Whiley was headed for a redshirt year. It was a tough adjustment, but Whiley buckled down and went to work.

“Everyone has their own paths,” Whiley said of redshirting. “Some people, it’s one or two years. It’s different for everyone. The situation I came in to, there were a lot of good guys in front of me. I had to accept my role and help the team as much as possible, whether it was on scout team or not. Those guys kept me locked in mentally.”

Joining him as a redshirt on the scout team was quarterback Manny Wilkins. The two had met as high school sophomores and struck up a fast friendship. They looked to lay the foundation of a productive quarterback-receiver relationship for ASU's future.

“I loved it, I’ve always thought that he was both a natural DB and a natural receiver,” Wilkins said. “He was always a really good receiver, and to this day he’ll probably tell you he’s a really good receiver.”

He wasn’t making an impact on game day, but behind the scenes and at practice, Whiley worked towards the future. The older players took notice.

“He was a good dude,” Simone remembered. “Came in and worked hard.”

But after the 2014 season, it was back to square one. The coaching staff saw a need in the defensive backfield and approached Whiley about switching to the other side of the ball. It was a move he knew was a possibility.

“Coming out of high school, I wanted to go somewhere where I had a chance to play both sides if one side didn’t work out,” Whiley said. “For the most part, that’s what happened when I got here. I was trying things out, figuring things out, especially at a young age.”

He would now be the hammer instead of the nail. 

“I like playing defense,” he said. “There’s just something about it. I like hitting people. Being in control, as far as not having to worry about getting the ball or blocking. You’re more able to make plays freely.”

Texas Tech Arizona St Football

Tyler Whiley (23) during his first career start vs Texas Tech in 2016 (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Whiley also had some veteran help in making the transition.

"I took it upon myself for anyone in my defensive back room to make it known that they could come to me with anything,” Simone said. “Tyler was another one of the guys. He fit right in with us. He was a good dude. It was cool to have him on the defensive side.”

Yet for all his hard work, Whiley was still unable to crack the lineup. He made just one appearance on the year—a road game at Washington State—and did not make a tackle.

Meanwhile, his friend Christian Kirk was having a record-setting season as a true freshman at Texas A&M. The two talked regularly during the year, and Kirk tried to offer as much support as he could to an increasingly frustrated Whiley.

"He was trying to find his role,” Kirk said. “He was learning himself off the field too, whether it was school or life in general. He was going through some things.”

That disappointing 2015 season ended and ushered in another year and another position switch. This time, Whiley was being moved to SPUR, a hybrid outside linebacker and safety position.

It was back to the drawing board.

“It was rough not finding one position for me,” Whiley said. “It’s hard to go from running forward to pedaling backward in a quick matter of time and to be successful at it. It’s tough. It took time.”

Yet despite another restart, Whiley kept his head down, put in the work, and tried to do everything he could to prove to the coaches that this time—at this position—he was a guy they could count on.

“I was just trying to stay positive and stay patient and wait for the opportunity,” said Whiley. “That's all you can ask for, or pray for, is the opportunity. And making the most of it. It took time, extra work after practice.”

That work appeared to finally have made an impression early in the 2016 season. Whiley saw action in the season opener against NAU and recorded a sack, one of three tackles he made. He then started the following week against pass-happy Texas Tech, and he then played the week after against UTSA. Unfortunately, it would be another eight weeks before he saw the field again.

Three years, three tackles, five games. Not exactly the impact anyone had expected.

That 2016 season was a hard one for Whiley and for the team, which ended the year with six consecutive losses. It was enough to make many players, including Whiley and Wilkins, question whether ASU was the right place for them.

“We both helped each other from that standpoint of being in situations where you have to think about that,” Wilkins said. “You have to think if you need to do that. Together, we always told each other to be firm in what we want to do and to trust what we feel.”

Whiley broached the topic of transferring to another school with his family, and they were supportive of any decision he would make.

Ultimately, it wasn’t that hard of a decision for Whiley to make.

“I loved ASU so much,” Whiley said. “When I came out of high school, I never questioned my decision at all. It’s part of the process. Stay patient. Your time will come eventually.”

In an era of near-constant transferring, Whiley’s outlook and patience were and are exceedingly rare qualities. He’d invested so much thus far, and had yet to reap the rewards. He wouldn’t leave a job unfinished. He had to prove to many, most importantly himself, that he could do it.

“That loyalty means so much more than just getting another opportunity,” Wilkins said. “You need to create your opportunity. You need to be the one who goes and gets it yourself. S*** should not be handed to you. If it’s handed to you, it’s not the right way. When you go out there and you earn it every single day, and you give these coaches no other options but to put you on the field and play you, that’s the biggest prove-myself-right move because I did it and you didn’t think I could do it. That’s the thing I think he’s feeling is that he has a lot to prove to himself and not worried about proving it to everyone else.”

Arizona St Arizona Football

Tyler Whiley in 2016 (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

With a renewed determination, Whiley earned a slightly increased role in 2017, albeit primarily on special teams. He blocked a punt against Oregon, and made three tackles on the season while appearing in all 13 games. It was still a long way from where he wanted to be on the field, but he was proving to be a valuable component to the team off the field.

“One of the biggest things that stands out was how he helped the young guys that were struggling and needed some extra help in understanding how to play the game at a high pace,” Wilkins said.

"When I was redshirting, me and him were together damn near every day,” said ASU cornerback Chase Lucas, who redshirted in 2016 before earning All-Pac-12 honors in 2017. “He would tell me every day that my time was coming. My time came against Texas Tech, and I took a hold of it."

Whiley, now among the team’s elder statesmen, was one of the most respected figures inside of the locker room, even with the lack of playing time. Other players looked up to him.

“When (former head coach) Todd Graham was here, Ty Whiley didn't get the recognition that he deserved,” Lucas said, "and he didn't get the playing time he deserved.”

Outside of the locker room, however, Whiley was still working to make his mark. And right on schedule, as had been the bizarre offseason tradition, a major change was coming his way.

Just hours after ASU beat Arizona to cap off the 2017 regular season, Graham was fired.

A new staff. A new defense. A new position.

But also, a new opportunity.

“He’s always done a really good job of seeing the outer lining of the picture and not forcing things to happen,” Wilkins said. “Trusting the process, trusting the coaches that are there, and being all in on the things he can control.”

The new process was about to finally reward his trust.

Controlled Psychotic Chaos

Once the shock of ASU’s hiring of Herm Edwards wore off, the true potential of that change began to come into focus for Tyler Whiley.

Edwards hired San Diego State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales to run the Sun Devil defense. Having faced the Aztecs the year before, Whiley was well aware of what Gonzales’ 3-3-5 scheme could do.

“We saw how unique their defense was,” Whiley said. “It’s a different, different defense. It allows skill players to make plays. If you’re not making a play, it’s pretty much on you.”

Once Whiley met Gonzales, the pair instantly clicked.

“I like him a lot,” said Whiley. “His style and mindset is one thing that kids want to play for. I want to play for it. He’s high energy.”

Whiley Camp T

(Photo: Sun Devil Athletics)

"Tyler Whiley has a great football sense,” Gonzales said. “Has a natural knack for the game. He knows where to fit, knows where the ball is going to be.”

But where was Whiley going to be?

Gonzales evaluated Whiley’s potential and pegged him for the "Tillman" safety spot. The position is a jack-of-all-trades role that places high demands on the player in defending both the run and the pass.

Or put another way...

“It’s controlled psychotic chaos,” said Wilkins. “You got to be willing to put your head up in the mix on the line of scrimmage but also be able to run with those little fast dudes out of the slot.”

Sounds right up Whiley’s alley.

“My body type fit the Tillman thing,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity. I lost a good amount of weight and got my body right.”

After playing the SPUR spot at over 215 pounds, Whiley slimmed down to just under 205.

During spring practices in 2018, as he learned the responsibilities of his fifth position over the last five years, Whiley lined up as the second-team Tillman behind sophomore Evan Fields.

Heading into the summer, Whiley realized that the opportunity he had longed for—his last and best chance to make his mark—was finally here. Things needed to kick up a gear.

“It was supposed to be my senior year, so things changed mentally,” Whiley said. “It means more. I put more time into working out and getting my body right. Studying more film. I came ready.”

"His approach was so different last year,” Lucas said. "'My time will come? No. My time has come!'"

Whiley was also buoyed by the return of his old friend Christian Kirk, who was back in the Valley as a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals.

“Once he cracked down and really dedicated himself to football, that's when (it clicked),” Kirk said. “Last year, we saw how good of a camp he had before the injury. His mindset totally took a 180. I think it helps him seeing my success and where I was able to take it. It really shows that if you work hard, things will work out for you.”

Fields opened ASU’s fall camp as the starter at Tillman safety, but that soon changed.

“As he got used to the Tillman position, he showed up to the right spot more and more,” Gonzales said. “He was flying around.”

Facing off against him in practice, Wilkins could see Whiley was a natural fit there.

“He did such a good job of being a dude!” Wilkins said. “He was everywhere, at every time, at every point, which is what you want from that position.”

By the second practice of fall, Whiley was taking the first-team reps.

“It shows that hard work pays off,” said Whiley of his ascension. “This whole time I was telling myself to trust the process and stay the course.”

His faith and dedication were paying off.

Then came that scrimmage.

The Setback Before The Comeback

Kobe Williams and Tyler Whiley were converging to tackle of Eno Benjamin. Williams got there first.

“I knew I fell on him, and that's what hurt me the most,” said Williams. “Just making that tackle on Eno, and I end up rolling with the tackle and falling on him. Man, that's sick.”

“I pretty much knew that the bone was broken,” Whiley said. “I felt it. I never had a pain like that before.”

Just days after claiming the starting Tillman safety job, Whiley had fractured his right fibula and suffered ligament damage in his foot.

His season was over.

“I shed a tear,” said Lucas of his reaction to the news. "I don't like thinking about it. It just hurts me.”

It hurt everyone. Most of the team’s defensive backs were so distraught, they stayed up through the night. No one in that room felt worse about the injury than Williams.

“I texted him a long paragraph telling him every play, every practice is going to be for you,” he said.

Not long after, the team's defensive backs made a promise to each other.

"We all agreed upon it that the season was going to be for Whiley,” Lucas said. “We were going to do everything we can to put it in his name."

The coaches tried to keep Whiley's spirits up with talk that he could petition the NCAA for another season of eligibility.

"Controlling the controllable is something he did a really good job of,” Wilkins said, “especially when he was going to be a guy last year, and he ends up getting a really serious injury. That can really tear someone down, or you can really see the fight come out. I saw the fight come out of Ty.”

Even after suffering the most significant setback of his career, Whiley continued to trust the process and trust in himself. As his teammates moved on with the season, Whiley went all-in on his recovery.

“It’s been a long process,” Whiley said. “There was a lot of treatment stuff at the beginning, then it opened up to more working out and things like that.”

For the first two months, the injury rendered the leg non-weight bearing, which meant he couldn’t walk on it. Once he was through that period, the work then included rehab sessions five times per week to help restore the full motion of the foot and strengthening the injured area. Then he began mobility work.

As he progressed along the arduous road back, he had plenty of support. Jordan Simone, who had battled severe knee injuries of his own, reached out.

"Any time I know a guy that has been injured, I try to text him as soon as I can and try to keep their spirits up, because I know how it is,” Simone said. “When I got injured, I had guys doing that for me, and it felt really good to hear someone say, 'You're not done.' It feels good to hear that from somebody who has been through it. That's what I did for Tyler. I just wanted to be there for him.”

He couldn’t contribute on the field, so Whiley made sure to help out as much as his rehab schedule would allow. He wanted to keep the team first.

When Lucas called Whiley to see how he was doing, Whiley would gloss over himself and instead pepper Lucas with questions about the team, the scheme, and how the young guys were progressing. ASU’s defense featured a number of freshmen who were thrust into key roles, and they needed all the guidance they could get.

“When he got hurt, he didn’t shut down,” Wilkins said. “He was still very much involved. He’s a very cerebral guy, so he was very much in tune with the play calls and how they were running the defense. He was able to be a vessel for the young guys.”

“I was just trying to motivate them, have them understand that the game is going to slow down eventually,” Whiley said. “Be yourself on the field, and don’t take anything for granted, because you don’t know if it’ll be your last time playing the game.”

Ty Whiley

(Photo: Ralph Amsden)

His tutelage paid off.

The Sun Devil defense exceeded all expectations in putting together a promising 2018 season. 

"I thought he did a great job in the training,” Gonzales said. “He was in meetings, but at the same time trying to stay on top of his rehab. He's been busting his tail.”

It has been a process full of peaks and valleys. There have been the thrills of progress and disappointments of setbacks. Throughout it all, Whiley leaned hard on his family for support. Thankfully, they were just down the road.

“Any time I was down, they’d come help pick me up,” Whiley said. “Being close to them was one of the things that definitely helped get me through everything. Through this injury process, if I didn’t have my family around, it’d be a lot different.”

Late in the year, Whiley found himself with some company. In a game against the Packers in early December, Christian Kirk broke his foot and was placed on Injured Reserve. The friends were now rehab partners, and each provided a source of strength and inspiration for the other.

"I think I used him more than he used me,” Kirk said. “His injury was more significant than mine. You go into a darker mental state when you get injured. Both of us haven't been injured like we were this past year ever in our football careers, so it's a little bit different of an environment that you put yourself in in a mental aspect. We just talked with each other, asking how we approach this or that recovery. It helps to have someone there to support you and know how exactly how you're feeling."

Over time, Whiley’s foot improved. Perhaps more importantly, his mindset improved.

“Nobody for a second has doubted his ability, it's just waiting for the right time to take advantage of his opportunity,” Kirk said. “Last year, he did. Sometimes, God throws a curveball at you and you just have to bounce back. That's why I'm super excited to see what he's able to do when he gets back out there healthy. I know he's in a totally different mental space."

With spring practice approaching, the feeling inside ASU’s program was that a sixth season of eligibility was all but assured. In doing so, he had provided the NCAA with his medical records, and gave a player statement.

Whiley would get one last chance to prove what he could do.

"I’m still going to play the same way as far as getting to the ball and playing hard.”

One Last Chance

He has his goals, and they’re predictable. Help the team win games, win the Pac-12, go to the Rose Bowl. A good season by him and his fellow Sun Devils may achieve those.

But before Tyler Whiley is done at Arizona State, he has a chance to add in something else, perhaps something more impactful.

He can become a hometown hero.

"I don't even like the fact that people are talking about me and N'Keal (Harry) before Ty Whiley,” Chase Lucas said of himself and the former ASU wide receiver, both from Chandler. “Before me and N'Keal, it was Ty Whiley! We got a whole bunch of kids here from Arizona that people don't recognize, and I feel that Ty Whiley is the number one guy. Ty Whiley is one of the best athletes I've ever seen at that position and what he does."

One of the most accomplished players the state has ever produced agrees.

“When he's at his best, you can see it,” said Kirk. “To this day, he's one of the best high school players I've seen come out of Arizona or that I've played against. The talent is there. When he gets out there and he works, he's at his best, the sky is the limit. You see so many guys these days in college, all it takes is one year for them."

Over the last 15 to 20 years, Arizona has improved its standing as a producer of top-end football talent. But very few of those young high school players have opted to stay in-state for college. It’s a struggle Arizona State has long looked to address, so it makes it all the more meaningful when a homegrown talent finds success in their own backyard.

This season will be another chance for that to happen.

“It’s a tough thing to do to stay home and help your home school win games,” Whiley admits. “Hopefully we can do something this year that help these Arizona guys stay.”

There’s no shortage of people who will be rooting for that to happen.

"That first game, when Ty Whiley gets the first tackle or first interception,” Lucas said, “he's going to be recognized as that hometown hero that he should have been four years ago."

*     *     *

So here he is, back on the football field, preparing for his last season of college football. He may be two months ahead of schedule, but he’s still not back to 100 percent. His coach knows there are still some hurdles to clear before he’ll feel fully comfortable on the field.

Right now, there’s no rush.

“He's established himself in the fall,” Danny Gonzales said. “We know what he can do. We'll take it easy with him during the spring. We'll let him get some reps and non-11-on-11 activity. He'll go through the individual stuff and he'll be sore, but he'll continue to get better. Then we'll cut him loose when we get to August."

Yet even with his limited participation, his mere presence on the field is giving the team a lift.

"Him coming back, I smile ear to ear,” Lucas said. “He deserves so much.”

Whiley's return could be just the thing the Sun Devil defense needs to take the first step.

“Even though we had a pretty good season last year defensively,” Whiley said, "Coach Gonzales has set our goals before the year and we didn’t meet all the goals that we wanted to. That fuels us and motivates us for the year coming up. It’s unfinished business for us. I feel like we have a lot more to obtain.

“I want to be able to add to it and help them get even better towards what they can be.”

We’ll also soon find out what Tyler Whiley can be.

In an era built on instant gratification and attention seeking, he has shown patience, faith, and loyalty. While others have thrived in the spotlight, he’s spent years working diligently in the shadows, waiting for his chance to shine.

It’s here now. 

He's older and wiser. He's got some scars. 

He's ready.

“I’ve put in five years. I’ve put so much time into it. Things get put into perspective after an injury, and a lot of things I took for granted. I just want to end it on a good note and go from there.”

 

 


Copyright 2019 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

 

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