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Such a philosophy justifies why No. 14 Nebraska has been starting three offensive linemen (center Mike Caputo, left guard Seung Hoon Choi and right guard Spencer Long) who began their careers as walk-ons; Choi and Long are still not on scholarship. And why No. 11 Michigan starts former walk-ons at strong safety (Jordan Kovacs), defensive end (Will Heininger) and fullback (John McColgan). And why No. 4 Wisconsin starts a current walk-on at receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and another at defensive tackle (Ethan Hemer). And why Connecticut quarterback Johnny McEntee has suddenly gone from tossing footballs into faraway buckets in viral trick-shot videos to passing to real Huskies receivers. And on, and on.
Aspiring walk-ons need to meet such high standards that in January 2010, when Whaley showed up at Oklahoma's football offices to introduce himself, Johnson wasn't exactly raring to snap up the newly accepted student. "I like to think that a guy good enough to play here should've been a star at Langston," admits Johnson, who noticed that Whaley, as a reserve, had rushed for 258 measly yards in his lone season, 2008. But then the running back began listing things that piqued the coach's interest: how high he could jump, how much he could lift and how fast he could run.
"If you can actually do all that stuff," Johnson told Whaley, with more than a hint of skepticism, "then you should have no problem here."
They tried. Whaley's coaches at MacArthur High had sent out transcripts and game tape. A principal with a son who played at Navy reached out to Annapolis, trying to sell the Midshipmen on a kid who'd followed his mother and stepfather, both in the Army, across five states and two countries. The response always came back the same: No thanks. Whaley, after all, had arrived in Lawton from Ansbach, Germany, as a junior, and he was the second option in MacArthur's backfield behind classmate Javon Harris—now the No. 1 free safety on the Sooners' depth chart—while doubling as a defensive back. Equally damaging, Whaley himself had no idea how the modern recruiting industrial complex worked. Kansas State, for instance, had actually invited him to its 2007 summer camp. There's no way I'm asking my mom to drive all the way up to Kansas for just a camp, Whaley thought. Thus the rising senior worked at a Goodyear tire factory that summer, never knowing that the invitation was the closest he'd come then to a Division I sniff.
Whaley wound up picking Langston over Division II Emporia (Kans.) State, lasting less than a year. In early 2009 his mom, Sgt. 1st Class Damaris Hardy, and his stepdad, M. Sgt. Kelius Hardy, were deployed to Iraq, so that spring Whaley left Langston to move in with his grandmother in Killeen, Texas, where he helped care for his two brothers and two sisters. But rather than enroll at a community college as he had planned, Whaley decided to spend the fall in intensive training with a local track coach named Robert Griffin Jr.—the father of Baylor star quarterback Robert Griffin III, who had been a middle school classmate. ("I'd race every new kid," recalls Robert III, who is also an Olympic-level hurdler, "and Dominique Whaley was the only one who almost beat me.") Whaley pored over a list of affordable transfer options—all of them in Texas or in Oklahoma, ranging from Sam Houston State to Oklahoma State to Texas—that would allow him to stay within driving distance of his longtime girlfriend in Lawton, Monique Atkinson (now his fiancée), and their young son.
But no matter where Whaley landed, at least one thing, however unlikely, was settled. "I decided that I was going to make the team, no matter what," he says now. "No ifs, ands or buts." And Oklahoma, thanks to Harris's presence and its 90-minute drive from Lawton, wound up being the best fit.
In Whaley's first spring in Norman, jaws dropped. "Javon told us how good and how hard a worker Dominique was, but we didn't know anything else about him," sophomore center Gabe Ikard says. "Then he started breaking these 50- and 60-yard runs. We were all saying, What is going on?" Whaley emerged as the team's leading rusher in each of the last two springs, so tearing up the vaunted Oklahoma defense, coach Bob Stoops likes to joke, that trainers needed to give the exhausted sandwich artist an IV. (The Sooners' D, notably, outscored the Texas offense last Saturday 21--10.) "I started to feel like, O.K., I can do this," says Whaley. "I felt confident that I could make a difference."
The 21-year-old has since outplayed teammates Brennan Clay (a five-star recruit in 2010), Roy Finch (four stars in '10) and Brandon Williams (five stars in '11) to become the starter. He's gained 20 pounds of muscle, bringing him up to 210. And as for his claims to Johnson? Whaley's done something even more unthinkable, breaking Adrian Peterson's records in the standing broad jump (11'1"), vertical jump (40½ inches), squat lift (525 pounds) and hang clean (355)—while also pushing the NFL star's mark in the 40 (4.39 seconds to Peterson's 4.37). So maybe it shouldn't have been surprising that Whaley's long-awaited Oklahoma debut resulted in 131 yards and four touchdowns in a 47--14 win over Tulsa on Sept. 3. Or that he gashed the Longhorns for a 64-yard run. "Now I just wish Dominique had come right after his first year at Langston," Johnson says. "That way he'd have three years of eligibility here instead of two."
Yet one familiar problem lingers. Yes, Whaley's rise has gained him recognition across the Big 12, and his Facebook and Twitter accounts have exploded, and fans in Norman now routinely approach, asking to take pictures. But popularity won't pay off the junior's latest set of loans. The most staggering element of Whaley's ascent is that unlike Hawaii's walk-ons, and Stanford's, and Michigan's, he still hasn't received a scholarship. For 13 years, Stoops says, team policy has been to award free rides exclusively to "guys who have started a whole year and are expected to be the starter the next year. That's the only way I know how to be fair about it."
Naturally, this has done little to satisfy Whaley's legion of fans. "Come on, man," says Whaley's father, Jeff, a onetime semipro football player who now works at a Cheesecake Factory in Brandon, Fla. "What does my son need to do to get a scholarship? Gain 300 yards against Texas?"