Northwestern fans were surprised when the program announced just eight days ahead of the Wildcats’ season-opener against Maryland that four players, including starting senior safety Travis Whillock, had opted out of the season. He totaled 155 tackles, six TFLs, four pass breakups and four fumble recoveries over 22 games as a sophomore and junior.
Inside NU caught up with Whillock to learn about his decision to opt out, his time away from the game, his thoughts on the 6-1 Wildcats and the Big Ten Championship Game, and his future plans.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Inside NU: We got the note from the program about the four players who opted out about a week before the season. When did you make that decision to opt out?
Travis Whillock: There was definitely a lot of thought put into it. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and decided to opt out. There were a lot of hard conversations with family and teammates and coaches. It was around mid-September, about a month before the season started. I wanted to wait to make sure it was the right decision for me, so I gave it as much time as I could. But I also wanted to be respectful of, ‘Okay, if I wasn’t playing, I wanted to make sure that the guys like Brandon Joseph or other guys who could step into those roles could be ready.’ I already knew they were going to be ready, regardless of my decision, but I wanted to be respectful about that time with the coaches and who they needed to prepare to get ready for the season. Ultimately, I thought that was the best decision for me, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the staff, all my teammates and the support that was around me at the time, because it was a hard decision. The way they were so graciously able to receive what I said with where my heart was with everything going on, I’m definitely thankful for them.
INU: So that was about a month after the Big Ten had postponed things for the moment. What was it like in mid-August during that uncertain period right after they’d released the schedule and then everything was in flux before they decided to (temporarily) postpone the season?
TW: That was really frustrating, honestly. And I don’t have all the answers, so I’m not getting mad at one person or putting blame on anybody by any stretch, but I think there was frustration coming from the uncertainty and understanding ‘Okay, are we playing, or not playing, now we get postponed, now we’re getting into the spring, and then for them to come back and put it back on.’ It was kind of this little roller coaster, which everyone was on. I say that not to make any excuses but to kind of share where I was at when all that was going on. But also I understand that they were trying to make the best decisions to look out for student- athletes and, so I can’t knock that.
INU: When you were making your decision, were there one or two certain factors that really you looked into and said ‘I’m just not doing this right now?’
TW: I think it’s something I thought about from the minute the season got postponed/ canceled (moved to the spring). I took a step back and had to ask myself ‘is this really something that I want to continue to go into with the protocols and with the state of where everyone was at?’ At the end of the day, I decided to make the best decision for myself, and I felt like I did that, and there’s no regret. I’m so ecstatic for the guys and what they’ve been able to do this year. It’s a testament to all their hard work and what they’ve been doing, ever since January, to get that bad taste out of our mouths from last year. I can’t express how excited I am for the seniors and for some of my best friends. It’s been awesome to watch from afar.
INU: So what did you do this fall being away from football?
TW: I went home. I didn’t want to run the risk of causing a spread in the team, and I don’t think they’ve had any cases all year. They’ve done such a great job. I wouldn’t have wanted to contribute to that, especially with not playing, so I’ve kinda gotten away from them just for safety purposes. I’ve been doing school and seeing what next steps might be for me. It has been great to spend time with my family, and school has been going well, so I can’t complain.
INU: Have you picked up any new hobbies since you’ve been home?
TW: I re-picked up golf because I was never able to play. It’s warmer down in Texas, so that’s been a nice plus. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I’d never been able to really get into it as much because I’ve always been so immersed in football.
INU: How much are you communicating with the guys on the team while you’re apart from them and they’re in season?
TW: I definitely make sure to reach out. Some of my best friends are on that team and will probably be my best friends for the rest of my life. But I want to be respectful, because I’ve played for the last four years, so I understand the busyness of the season. I want to be respectful of that but want to keep in touch, so I definitely make sure to try to call my guys at least weekly. If I’ve been getting busy than for sure no more than two weeks, but I’ve tried to text them or call them after every game just to let them know that I’m thinking of them, how proud I am of them.
INU: What’s it been like to watch the defense and really the secondary play, a group you are tight with, play so well?
TW: It’s incredible. I love those guys so much, and I have a lot of great relationships with them. I think the wins come when you’re able to have fun, you’re able to be loose, and they’re flying around. Seeing guys like B-Jo and Greg, AJ, Cam, Bryce, JR, Rod, Coco succeed, I could go on and on about every single one of those guys in that room and what each of them means to me. They deserve it and they’ve been working their tails off, ever since we were training by ourselves during COVID, keeping up with each other during the spring and summer. I just knew that this was gonna be great year. Obviously, I’m not on the field and a part of it, but I’m a part of it from afar, watching them do their thing and just play to what they’re capable of doing.
INU: Brandon Joseph has had a breakout year playing in the spot you occupied the last couple of years. What’s that like to watch and to see happen?
TW: When he was a true freshman on the scout team and then into spring ball last year, he was already making plays then and you just knew he was gonna be a good player. His attention to detail, how he carries himself and the work that he puts in in the film room, off the field, translates to being able to make those big-time plays. If you ask anybody in the program, it’s no surprise where he’s at and the success that he’s having. I wasn’t surprised a bit, honestly. It was only a matter of time before you got out there and started doing this thing. I’m excited to see him grow as a player and as a leader, especially as he gets older and starts becoming a mentor. JR has done such a great job of that this year, enjoying that backfield and being the glue back there. So yeah, I’m excited for him. I love him. He’s a great dude. We have a great relationship. I have a lot of joy when I see him make those big plays, knowing he’s been doing that in practice every time he steps on the field.
INU: As a safety, tell the laypeople like me, what’s the toughest thing for someone who’s never started or played much to come in and adjust to in order to play at a Big Ten level?
TW: I would probably say being able to communicate, especially as safeties, and being able to get people lined up, which JR has done such a great job of this year. I talked about him kinda being the glue back there. The safeties have to know a lot. There’s a lot of information that you have to take in, and I’m really impressed with him, especially in the season that they’ve had, with COVID and having a little less time to prepare with not having a full camp and however that looked. I wasn’t there for camp, so I can’t speak 100% of that, but I’m sure it was a little more of a struggle. I think about installs during spring ball when we were doing them on Zoom, his attention to detail for him to take all that in and run with that, go out there and be able to play fast. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not gonna be able to play fast. That’s a testament to his awareness as a football player and his IQ for being able to understand concepts and understand what’s in front of him. That film study that he does day in and day out allows him to fly around, have fun and ultimately make game-changing plays that’s really helped them in some of those close games.
INU: Can you provide any insight on the challenge Ohio State presents to the Northwestern defense?
TW: They do a lot of things that I think can challenge certain coverages, just with the schemes and concepts their coaches draw up. There are definitely some challenges. They always have great players. They’re always really well-coached. It’s going to be a great game. But Coach Hank is the mastermind, he’s the GOAT. I have full confidence in the defense and offense. They’ve put in so much work, and they’ve been preparing for this moment, especially when we’re talking about the taste that we have in our mouths from last year, for them to be able to get back to where we were in 2018 by leading with that extra chip on their shoulder. I’m excited to see our guys go out, compete and have fun, fly around, make plays, do their thing, and do what’s expected. I’m sure most people on the outside might not see that, but I know everybody within that program is expecting to win, as they should. I don’t think anybody should go play a game expecting to lose. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I already know they’re gonna have that fire under their belly, and they’re gonna be ready to go.
INU: Speaking of Hank, literally right when I got on the phone with you, I saw a Tweet that said this is his last season. What’s it been like playing for him?
TW: Man, there’s so much to say about Coach Hank. He is truly incredible. There’s not too many like him, the way he’s able to relate to his players, the way he’s able to coach you and convey his message. Guys want to play for him. Guys love playing for him. He’s so humble. You’re never gonna hear him talk himself up, and that’s a testament to his character and who he is as a man and how he’s been able to develop young men over the years. I can’t say enough great things about him. I’m so excited that they’re going to be able to send him off the right way. That would be awesome if he could get that 400th win in the Big Ten Championship.
INU: You said you don’t have any regrets of opting out, but do you ever get an itch watching the games?
TW: I’d definitely say I miss the guys. I just love my teammates so much. But I don’t think there’s any regrets. I love to compete, whether that’s football, whether that’s going to playing Spikeball, whatever it is, I’m a natural competitor. I would say that I miss being able to go compete, but only because those are my guys out there. I know I made the right decision. It stings a little, but I’m so happy with how everything’s worked out for the team.
INU: The NCAA has given everyone an extra year of eligibility, have you given any thought to returning for another season?
TW: I’m still taking the time right now. I’m in school right now, and I finish out in May, so at least right now I’m not thinking about what that might look like. I’m just trying to enjoy the holiday with the family. I’ll have more on that probably later down the line. I’m really trying to focus right now on spending time with people that I love and staying present with everything. That’s a good question. I don’t have a 100% answer for you right now. It’s one day at a time and seeing what that might look like in the future.