FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s cliché: Every player on the New England Patriots must check his ego at the door. Suffice to say, though, Jonathan Wilhite strolled right through that door without the necessary pit stop.
The second-year cornerback is as humble as they come, despite having a multitude of reasons to puff out his chest and carry himself with a certain swagger. Wilhite has drawn the praises of his veteran teammates and coach Bill Belichick for his ability to step into the starting role and make some serious contributions in the final four games of the 2008 season.
Because of that, all eyes were on Wilhite during the Patriots’ offseason camps, and again as they opened training camp two weeks ago — and the 25-year-old showed even more improvement. He has been strong in pass coverage, and he has done the majority of his work with the first-team defense because of an injury to Shawn Springs.
“Jonathan, I thought, made a lot of strides last year from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, and then he followed that up with a real strong offseason program and spring camps and got off to a good start here in training camp,” Belichick said. “Jonathan has really worked hard. He’s become a very dependable player for a young guy. He’s smart. He’s quiet, but he definitely understands not only what we’re doing but concepts and offenses and how they play.
“He’s got a good variety of skills, and that’s always valuable when you can do different things with the same player. That helps him match up against different receivers, some fast receivers, some quick receivers, different guys that can run after the catch. He’s a good tackler. I think he does a lot of things well, and he’s gotten better. It seems like every time he walks out on the field, it’s been very, very steady.”
Wilhite did suffer a shoulder injury a couple of days into camp, and he missed a handful of practices as a result. But he returned over the weekend and resumed his pace.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Wilhite said. “I was down with the injury to my shoulder, but everything seems to be moving good right now. I’m back out. I’m getting plays, and I think the most important thing is I’m back out practicing. I could only get mental reps in the meetings, but now I can actually get out with the guys and play around. I’m just happy to be back at practice.”
The Patriots used their 2008 fourth-round pick (No. 129 overall) to select Wilhite, and the Auburn product didn’t really see a ton of playing time through the first three months of the season. After some injuries depleted the Pats’ secondary, though, Wilhite played well as New England won its last four games. He had 13 tackles (11 unassisted), two passes defended and one interception during that stretch to really legitimize his place on the roster.
“It was a dream,” Wilhite said. “I got a chance to go out and compete and show what I can do. The guys around me — especially my safeties, James [Sanders] and Brandon [Meriweather] — they got me lined up, and I just tried to play ball.”
Springs’ injury has given Wilhite an extended opportunity in camp, but the veteran cornerback is still taking the time to offer advice and support to the younger Wilhite. The understudy — who said he is “blessed” to have the opportunity to learn from Springs — is trying to learn how to be patient, both with his skills and the game itself.
Eventually, Wilhite said, the game will slow down, and until then, he knows he has to trust his ability and instincts to continue making an impact on the field. Surprisingly enough, even after his success last December, Wilhite is still waiting for it all to come together.
“It’s a fast game, man,” Wilhite said. “Some of the best guys in the world are playing this game. I’m still waiting on the day for it to slow down.”