Pitt County Showdown

Goal-oriented: Conley’s Whitehurst excels on field, in classroom

Will Whitehurst knows the key to any good kick is simple: head down, follow through.

It’s the same with his forehand in tennis.

With either stroke, the D.H. Conley High School senior places the result squarely on the shoulders of his slender 6-2, 185-pound frame. He likes it that way.

As the son of a Morehead Scholar and football coach, he’s been driven — but never pressured — to excel. He has done that on the field for one of the most prolific offenses in the state, helping put the Vikings in position for a conference championship heading into Friday night’s showdown with South Central.

He’s also gotten serious in the classroom, knowing that academics may ultimately direct his path if the football offers he desires never come.

Either way, effort will not be the thing holding him back.

“I really want to live up to what I have been given,” Whitehurst said. “Some people don’t really have the same opportunities that I do. …. I just want to do the best with what I have. I don’t want to waste anything that I have been given.”

Whitehurst has not wasted his chance handling all kicking and punting duties for Conley, which has won nine in a row and averages 51.6 points per game. The left-footer leads the state and ranks second nationally in kickoff yardage (4,822 yards) with 37 touchbacks on 84 kicks. His 68 point-after kicks in 72 attempts rank second in North Carolina and sixth nationally, and his 74 points rank third in the state among kickers and is 20th in the nation.

As a punter, he averages of 37.9 yards on just 13 attempts this year with a long of 67 and four punts inside the 20.

Perhaps no one appreciates that production more than head coach Nate Conner. He at least knows there will be little drama on special teams.

“It is such a luxury that maybe we take for granted sometimes how consistent he is,” Conner said. “He’d probably love to kick more field goals, but we feel when we get down to a certain point we’ve got a good chance of scoring. He never complains about that.”

Whitehurst has made two of his four field goal attempts this year and nine of 12 the last three seasons. He made 79 PAT kicks each of the last two seasons.

As impressive as Whitehurst’s statistics are, Conner said his work as a student should not be overlooked.

“What Will’s done a tremendous job with that never gets talked about is, he’s got outstanding grades,” Conner said. “He is a phenomenal student. That’s going to give him a lot of opportunities to go to school and get a chance to go out and compete. He’s one of the top kids in his class academically.”

‘Definitely a soccer kid’

Although his father, Ken, was a punter in high school and coached at North Pitt, Kinston and Conley, Whitehurst never felt pushed to play football.

“I’m just not much of a physical kid,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t competitive, especially when it comes to younger brother Conner, a sophomore on Conley’s junior varsity team. The sibling rivalry has played out on various courts and fields, but Will draws the line at baseball.

“He still plays baseball to this day, and I despise baseball,” he said, laughing. “I feel like he only did it just to have something over me.”

Tennis and soccer intrigued Whitehurst more. He played a bit of basketball and wide receiver in football in middle school, but neither stoked his passion.

“I was definitely a soccer kid,” he said.

But it was on the soccer field where his potential as a kicker surfaced.

“I would kick the ball way over the goal, and my dad — his football mind starts working — says, ‘That’s a field goal. You’re going to go play football.’”

Whitehurst kicked for the St. Peter Catholic School football team his eighth-grade year then played soccer and kicked during his freshman year at Conley.

As a sophomore, he committed to football full time. Early success led him to not only try to refine his skills but to begin thinking about a possible career after high school.

He and his dad have spent weekends traveling to kicking camps, including UNC-Chapel Hill where Ken attended school, and William & Mary. After each game, he adds to his highlights on Hudl.com and contacts schools in hopes of catching some recruiter’s attention.

So far, no luck.

“It’s just like talking into the void sometimes,” Whitehurst said. “You just hope that eventually you hear back.

“They don’t want waste an entire academic scholarship on someone who could get into school anyway. My goal is to get into the school where I want to go off of my grades, on mind power alone, and try to walk on somewhere.”

Continuing the family legacy in Chapel Hill would be his first choice, but Whitehurst did not rule out the hometown school. Conley quarterback Holton Ahlers has committed to play at East Carolina next season.

“If East Carolina shows more interest — or any interest at all really — I would definitely think about doing that, just helping them out as a backup, basically a free athlete,” Whitehurst said.

He has no doubts he could help some team. All he has to do is scan a few games on Saturday afternoons.

“This sounds really cocky — but I’m really not that way — you’re watching guys missed extra points, and you’re like, ‘Man, I could do that,’” Whitehurst said.

Ken Whitehurst would like to see his son get a chance.

“I think kickers just need an opportunity,” he said. “As a field goal guy, he’s good up to about 55 yards. But he may actually be a better punter, and he’s a good student. I’m really proud of him. I just hope that something comes up.”

A test of endurance

With Ahlers, junior wide receiver C.J. Johnson and the rest of Conley’s offense scoring at a rapid-fire pace, Whitehurst stays on the go. On most nights, he can count on seven or eight kickoffs and extra points with a punt or two mixed in.

It’s enough to even make a kicker sweat.

“I go to PAT, right to kickoff, then get right back on the field with another score probably,” he said. “The past couple of years, I would warm up on the sideline when we passed the 50. This year as soon as we get the ball, I’m going to go ahead and warm up in the net. I already know what’s going to happen.”

Conley’s defense also gets a big assist from Whitehurst, whose deep kickoffs typically create a long field for opposing offenses. In a recent game against rival J.H. Rose, the Rampants started three first-half possessions at their 20, one at the 10 and another at the 1-yard line.

“If he doesn’t put it in the end zone, that returner is usually going backward catching it on the one, and our kickoff coverage team is getting down there and covering,” Coach Conner said. “We’re usually starting with that team having to go 80-plus yards. That’s a huge thing for our defense, which then gives us good field position coming back on offense. … It’s such a field position game, and he’s so crucial in that aspect.”

In many ways, he’s earned the respect of his teammates.

“He’s a football player,” Ken Whitehurst said. “He doesn’t miss summer workouts, 6 o’clock in the morning, the whole bit, and he’s had those results to show for it.”

Whitehurst also has results to show on the tennis court, which he says is his real love. The Vikings have won three straight conference championships, and with the top three seniors gone from last year’s team, Whitehurst could find himself in the No. 1 spot this year.

“As soon as football is over, I’m going right into tennis,” he said. “I want to really try to drive our team to our fourth conference championship.”

For now, the focus is on South Central, a conference title in football and a deep run into the playoffs, where perhaps someone will take notice. If not, he will keep the same approach wherever it takes him: head down, follow through.

“It’s about making my own opportunity than it coming to me,” Whitehurst said. “Kickers don’t really get that much of a look anyway, so I’ve got to make my own opportunity wherever I go. And it might not involve kicking. Who knows? If I get to whatever school I want and it just doesn’t work out — I’ll try my hardest, that’s for sure — but if it doesn’t work then I’ve got plenty ability to do whatever I want.”

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