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Boobee Whitlow —Almost signs w/ Tulane


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How sweet it is’: Boobee Whitlow nearly signed with Tulane. Now he’s Auburn’s star running back

Updated Sep 04, 7:23 AM; Today 7:00 AM

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 31: JaTarvious Whitlow #28 of the Auburn Tigers during the Advocare Classic at AT&T Stadium on August 31, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)



By Tom Green | tgreen@al.com

The papers were signed and waiting for Boobee Whitlow. All he had to do was fax them in on National Signing Day.

The LaFayette star was all set to go to Tulane, much to the chagrin of his mother, Pamela Holloway. A mama’s boy at heart, Whitlow was somewhat at odds with his mother over his apparent college choice; she wanted what was best for him, of course, but she also wanted him close to home, and Tulane’s campus in New Orleans was six hours away from LaFayette.

“Me and my mom had a little confrontation back and forth,” Whitlow said. “I called Tulane… that Wednesday night (before National Signing Day), and I was like, ‘I’m coming. That’s it. Fax the paper. I’m coming.’”

That was exactly one week before signing day in 2017, and Whitlow thought he was bound for the Big Easy. A lot can change in a week’s time — and it did for Whitlow, the Auburn redshirt sophomore who went from nearly signing with the Green Wave to becoming the Tigers’ star running back.

If not for a coaching change, an 11th-hour phone call and a box of Honey Buns, Whitlow would be standing on the visiting sideline at Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend, when No. 10 Auburn (1-0) hosts Tulane (1-0) at 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2). As fate would have it, Whitlow won’t be suiting up for the Green Wave; he will be lining up in Auburn’s backfield, going up against the school that nearly lured him two states away.

Here’s how it happened.

A three-star athlete and three-sport star at LaFayette, Whitlow’s recruitment was fairly low-key. He held offers from six schools, including Auburn, by the end of his senior season. Tulane, UAB, Troy, Georgia State and Jacksonville State were the other five.

He caught the attention of Auburn’s coaching staff the summer before his senior year, when he impressed defensive coordinator Kevin Steele during a June camp. There, Whitlow ran a pair of hand-timed 40s in the 4.47 range and, according to his high school coach James Lucas, “dominated” a top cornerback prospect in one-on-ones.

“He’s very athletic, and he had video evidence that he could make football plays, but then he’s highly competitive,” Steele recalled. “He’s very competitive. He’s got a competitive spirit. I didn’t know what he was, but I knew he was something.”

A day later, while attending a camp at UAB, Whitlow received a call from Steele. Auburn was offering him a scholarship, but the Tigers wanted him to play defense. Steele may not have known what position Whitlow was, but the veteran defensive coordinator thought the versatile athlete could project as a safety or Star in Auburn’s defense.

Whitlow was honored by the offer, and it was music to Holloway’s ears, the opportunity to have her baby boy stay close to home. There was only one problem: Whitlow didn’t want to play defense. He had some experience playing all over the field on defense at LaFayette, but offense is where he truly shined, whether it was quarterback, running back or receiver. That’s where his heart was.

“He didn’t want that,” Holloway said. “He was like, ‘Mom, you can forget Auburn; it’s off my list because I don’t want to play no defense.’ So, you know, I was excited when they offered him on defense. I was like, ‘Oh Lord, he’s 30 minutes away. I can deal with this.’ My husband kept saying, ‘You’re being selfish.’ No, I was being Mom.”

Whitlow kept his recruitment open and continued to take other visits through his senior year at LaFayette, where he earned first-team All-State honors and Class 2A Back of the Year after passing for 2,292 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushing for another 2,147 yards and 30 touchdowns for the Bulldogs.

The burden of doing a little bit of everything for LaFayette, where he was the star attraction on Friday nights, weighed on him, though. Holloway recalls her son coming home after games and telling her he wanted to quit because he was tired of the pressure and the way some people viewed his playing style and usage as selfish or a form of favoritism. She wouldn’t let him, insisting she didn’t raise a quitter.

“Boobee went through a lot being from a small school at LaFayette because he had to do so much,” Holloway said. “He had a lot of fans, but he gained a lot of enemies too because people are just kids. When you’re at a small school, you have to do so much, and he gained a lot of enemies and he wanted to give up so much because of what people said and what people thought, but he was just being Boobee in his games, doing what he loves to do.”

After his senior season wrapped up, Whitlow turned his attention to the next step. The nearby schools were all intriguing to him, but his visit to Tulane made him feel at home. The Green Wave wanted Whitlow as an athlete; they wanted him to line up at running back and receiver, as well as serve as a Wildcat quarterback.

“Being my baby boy — and he’s a mama’s boy — I wasn’t satisfied with that, them long hours (to New Orleans),” Holloway said. “It was challenging for me. It was very challenging, but I had got to the point, and he had worked so hard to be in that position, I wasn’t going to try to make him change his mind about his decision. I let him make his decision.”

Everything was in place for Whitlow to sign with the Green Wave — and then Auburn swooped in at the 11th hour.

Two days before National Signing Day, Steele called Lucas at LaFayette. Though Auburn’s interest in Whitlow cooled over the course of his senior season, things recently changed on the Plains. The Tigers hired a new offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey, on Jan. 21 to replace Rhett Lashlee. Lindsey only had a couple of weeks to put his touch on the Tigers’ 2017 signing class, and after flipping on film of Whitlow, the new offensive coordinator was impressed with what he saw.

What former Auburn OC Chip Lindsey 1st saw in Boobee Whitlow

Lindsey wanted to offer Whitlow a scholarship to play receiver, a decision he cleared with Gus Malzahn and receivers coach Kodi Burns, who were “all in” with the idea.

“When I saw the ball in his hand, he just made plays,” Lindsey told AL.com that summer. "A lot of times, you line guys up and run the 40 and measure their height and weight, and then you say, ‘OK, this is the kind of guy we want.’ But I think sometimes you can’t overlook the things that make up a different player, and I think he’s got all those intangibles.”

Steele delivered the news first to Lucas and then requested the LaFayette coach summon Whitlow to his office for the phone call. Lucas called Whitlow in and handed him the phone. All Lucas remembers hearing was a string of “yes sirs” from Whitlow as a smile formed on his face.

“I was like, ‘Forget it. I’m coming. It’s over with then,’” Whitlow recently said. “That’s all I wanted, an offensive offer. I ain’t want to come for defense; I wanted an offensive offer. When they called and did that right there, I didn’t even tell Tulane that I wasn’t coming. My coach had ripped the paper up and he had the Auburn signing paper there.”

Exuberant, Whitlow delivered the news of the offer to his parents that night. Holloway was thrilled, though she tried not to show it too much in front of her son.

“You can only imagine how excited he was, but I was more excited than that,” she said. “I didn’t let him see it all the way, but boy, when I got back there in my room — I was like, ‘yes, thank God.’… I was saying to myself, ‘Yeah buddy, Tulane I can strike that off the list.’”

Despite her excitement, Holloway wanted him to pray on it before making a life-altering decision, so she presented a challenge to Whitlow before National Signing Day. She wanted him to place hats for his three top schools on the family’s stovetop that night, and by the time he woke up in the morning, only one could be there.

Whitlow placed hats and shirts for Tulane, UAB and Troy on the stove that night. Auburn was nowhere to be seen. By the next morning, on National Signing Day, all three remained—despite the fact Whitlow had made his decision; he just didn’t tell his mom.

He wanted it to be a surprise.

That morning in the basketball gym at LaFayette, the Bulldogs held a signing ceremony. When Whitlow’s turn came, he put the hats for UAB, Tulane and Troy on the table in front of him. Then, suddenly, he reached for a box of Honey Buns — one of his favorite junk-food snacks — and pulled out an Auburn hat, surprising nearly everyone in LaFayette and even many down in Auburn.

“It was really just really how sweet it was, you know, how sweet it was that an SEC team was interested in him,” Lucas said of Whitlow’s unorthodox vehicle for unveiling his decision. “That’s where the Honey Buns box comes from, just the sweetness of a honey bun, and how sweet it is to be recognized.”

Whitlow, who long dreamt of playing at Auburn and whose bedroom in LaFayette was adorned with posters of Cam Newton despite growing up in a house of Alabama fans, has savored every moment since.

He arrived at Auburn as a receiver before moving to running back during fall camp in 2017. He injured his ankle shortly thereafter and redshirted his first season on the Plains, though he impressed teammates during bowl practices ahead of Auburn’s appearance in the Peach Bowl. The following spring, he truly began to shine, with teammates calling him a “(Kamryn) Pettway and Kerryon (Johnson) mix” at running back, likening his running style to watching a game of Madden or the movie “Friday Night Lights.”

As a redshirt freshman last season, he led Auburn in rushing. He totaled 787 yards and six touchdowns on 150 carries, adding 173 receiving yards and a pair of scores while also throwing a touchdown out of the Wildcat. Still, he left an abundance of yards on the field as Auburn’s streak of nine straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher came to a disappointing end.

That prompted a change at running backs coach, with Malzahn bringing in former Auburn great Cadillac Williams to take over for Tim Horton. Williams has been beneficial for Whitlow, who had never really been a full-time running back until last season. The Tigers’ all-time leader in rushing touchdowns has been an excellent mentor for Whitlow so far, helping him improve his patience behind the offensive line and waiting for holes to develop, whereas in 2018 he was often anxious in the backfield and just took off like he was accustomed to doing in high school.

Cadillac Williams: Boobee Whitlow can be 1 of best RBs in nation

“Seeing Coach Cadillac come in and teaching him from a standpoint of what he was taught when he was there, it’s a great connection and fit,” Lucas said. “It challenges him. It challenges him, and one thing about JaTarvious is that he loves to be challenged. He’s an athlete, he’s a competitor. So, you challenge him with goals and expectations, he’s going to try his fullest to try and complete it. That’s the way he is.”

Whitlow answered that challenge in Auburn’s season opener against Oregon, rushing for 110 yards on a career-high 24 carries. That included 78 yards on 15 second-half attempts, when he helped take over the game as the Tigers erased a 15-point third-quarter deficit and rallied for a thrilling 27-21 win.

Through one week, he’s fourth in the SEC in rushing and tied for 32nd nationally. He wants to bring RBU back to Auburn, and he’ll aim to take a step closer to that goal this weekend against the school that nearly landed him.

“I just sit back now, and I look at him and smile and get emotional, because he didn’t stop,” Holloway said. “He never stopped working, and he’s proving today where his heart really was. He gives his all on the field, like he gives his all. He gives his all at Auburn just like he did at LaFayette. He plays until he can’t play no more…. I’m so proud of him, because he hasn’t stopped, and the best is yet to come.

“I say it all the time, and I don’t mean it as a cliche, I mean it because I’ve seen that the best is yet to come for him because he’s still working hard, and when you work hard, it pays off.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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