By Paul Condry and Matt Kopsea
Like most youngsters, Jayden Whitaker enjoyed tagging along with his dad to his job.
However, instead of spending time in an office board room, the gridiron is where Jayden and J.T. Whitaker formed their special bond.
“It’s always been special experience,” recalled Jayden Whitaker. “He’s been a coach of mine since I was little, and I’ve grown up around football with him. On the field, we are strictly coach and player. We are both super competitive, so we both understand that we can always get better. There are a few times where we let loose and have fun like after a big touchdown but overall, it’s really a special experience.”
In the midst of his second campaign as Brownsburg’s starting quarterback, the 6-foot-3, 170-pound senior has been very effective by completing 40-of-63 for 655 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception. He has also run 19 times for 135 yards and four scores.
“I have had the opportunity to coach two (NCAA) D-1 quarterbacks in Ben Easters and Hunter Johnson, and Jayden is on par with where those guys were in their senior year,” said J.T. Whitaker, who serves as Brownsburg’s offensive coordinator. “They each excelled at different things (Ben had an elite arm, Hunter had an elite arm and great mobility) Jayden has a good arm, moves through the pocket well, and mentally does a great job at the line checking us into great plays.
“It is a tough deal because I am probably overly hard on Jayden compared to the other kids. I don’t want to give the perception that he is getting treated any different than any other player in our program would. As a dad, I have moments in games where I am proud of what he is doing and who he has developed into as a player and person. I try to let (Brownsburg head) Coach (John) Hart and (quarterback) Coach (Gage) Reinhard do most of the coaching of Jayden unless there is specific scheme or adjustment we need to talk through. I love having the opportunity to coach my son, but it also comes with challenges.”
Getting the chance to hang out with his dad has also been special for Jayden as well.
“Growing up, I was always with my dad on the field or in the press box, so there he was always coach,” Jayden recalled. “When he coached me from elementary to now, he was always Coach. The line was always drawn when we stepped on the field that I was a player, and he was a coach. So, when I got to high school, there was not much of a change up. He was still my coach on the field and dad off the field.”
After serving as understudy to Easters, who is now at Kansas, during his sophomore campaign, Jayden made the position his own last fall by going 136-of-177 for 1,523 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions and running 75 times for 488 yards with seven scores.
“Being behind Ben was a great learning experience for me,” explained Jayden. “I got to see what playing at the highest level to the best of your ability was like. He was a big factor into my development as a player from the mental aspect of understanding defenses and coverages. He also taught me how to have fun, but also know when to be serious at the same time.
“For my first year, I felt like I did pretty good. It didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but after the year I felt there was another jump for me. I felt like my team and I could take another step and be better this year then we were last year.”
Posting a 42-35 victory over two-time defending Class 5A state champion Indianapolis Cathedral on August 26 has probably been his biggest highlight.
“It was a great win, and those games are confidence builders for our team,” said Jayden, who threw for 281 yards with a touchdown and ran for another score. Cathedral is a really good team, and to beat them only adds to the momentum we want to keep moving forward with. We still have things to improve on to reach the max potential our team has, but the win definitely felt great.”
The coaching staff was equally pleased with the end results against the Irish.
“It was a great win because we played those guys last year and they held our offense to only seven points,” recalled J.T, about the 20-7 setback to Cathedral. ”This time last year, we had eight new starters on offense and we were still trying to find our way. The best part about the game is our players had a great week of practice and then went out and executed at a high level. It showed the importance of practice translating to the game. It was definitely a confidence booster to go out against a great team who runs a great scheme and put up 42 points. The kids were very excited in the locker room. This has been a great group to coach because they play hard for each other and they truly love the game of football.”
Having the opportunity to see his son blossom and mature on and off the field has been satisfying for J.T.
“Jayden is a highly intelligent kid, so he does an amazing job of commanding the offense,” J.T. said. “We give him the ability to check things at the line of scrimmage (protection, run direction, plays) which is a huge advantage because we can make adjustments on the field as defenses adjust to stop us. He is a great leader, and the kids really respond to him leading. He does a great job of executing at a high level and he also knows when to get out of the pocket if things breakdown.
“It is truly a joy and honor to watch Jayden because I know how hard he has worked and how much the game of football means to him. I have coached him since he was in kindergarten, and he has always had a passion for the game. The results of his performance are not only what makes me most proud it is the fact that he respects the game by preparing at a high level. He is a great teammate who truly cares, and he brings on energy that his teammates feed off of.”
Having had the opportunity to work with his son, Gibson Southern head coach Nick Hart, as well, John Hart knows exactly what this means to the Whitaker family.
“J.T. has been known around the state as one of the best coaches for some time,” Hart explained. “It’s a challenge to coach your own son because no matter what you do, someone is going to claim nepotism, when every ‘dad coach’ I know just wants their son to be treated like every other player on the team.
“Our goal was to be as completely transparent as possible. Same practice scripts, same personnel, and same number of reps. I believe it created competition and most of all, it created pressure. Jayden has done what all great high school quarterbacks do when there is pressure. He prepared and embraced the moment. Both J.T. and Jayden are very talented, but mostly they are men of integrity and grit.”
Having worked with Hart for many years, J.T. has mutual respect for his boss.
“Coach Hart is an elite head coach that really pushes guys to become the best versions of themselves,” explained J.T. “As a coach, I have grown tremendously because he has challenged me to always come up with ways to be better and finding new answers on how to attack defenses.
“Since becoming offensive coordinator four years ago, I have probably grown as much in that time as I did the previous eight years and that is a credit to Coach Hart and how he motivates me each and every day to find the best version of myself. There is a reason he has been successful he is a great communicator. He cares about kids and coaches, and he is always looking for ways to improve.”
He also wants to savor these final few months working with his son.
“When we are on the field, I focus only on being coach and that is the best way for me to ensure that I am helping prepare our offense to the best of my ability,” explained J.T. “I coach the wide receivers, so they get the majority of my attention, and my focus is on developing them each and every day. When Jayden makes good plays, I am happy as coach because of our level of execution, but also proud as dad because he is my son. If anyone says it’s easy coaching their kid, then they would be lying. You can’t spend too much time focusing on the good or dwelling on the bad you truly have to treat him like every other kid. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to coach him and as a dad, I try to enjoy every moment I have with my son knowing this is his last year before he goes off to college.”
Having already decided to continue his playing career at Western Illinois, Jayden can focus on delivering the Bulldogs’ first state title since 1985.
“For the future, my main goal is to be the best version of myself,” explained Jayden. “I want to finish out my senior year with all of my coaches and teammates and have as much fun as possible. But, in the end, whether football takes me somewhere or I go a different path, I just want to be the best me I can possibly be in whatever I do.”
The Whitaker’s quest for Lucas Oil Stadium continues this Friday night when top-ranked (Class 6A) Brownsburg (3-0) hosts Avon (0-3).