Kyle Whittingham was the first to recognize that Eric Weddle was the real deal years ago when the latter was a high school football player. Whittingham, Utah’s defensive coordinator at the time, believed it so strongly that he stuck his neck out for him and talked his skeptical boss — a guy named Urban Meyer — into signing Weddle even though he was ignored by virtually all other recruiters.

Whittingham, who is now Utah’s head coach, was as surprised as everyone when Weddle ended a two-year retirement a month ago at the age of 37 to join the L.A. Rams, becoming perhaps the biggest story in the team’s run to Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham talks with then-San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle during a spring practice at Spence Eccles Field House in Salt lake City Thursday, April 2, 2015. Weddle will play in this Sunday’s Super Bowl. | Chelsey Allder, Deseret News

 But then he remembered who Weddle is.

 “It was shock at first,” said Whittingham this week of his reaction. “But then when I thought about it, if anyone can pull this off it’s him. He kept himself in good shape — good shape is different than football shape but he was fit — and he’s such a natural and such a gifted athlete.”

 Whittingham and Weddle have kept in touch since the latter joined the NFL in 2007 and they exchanged texts when Weddle suddenly joined the Rams for their playoff run. “What’s going on?” Whittingham wrote. Weddle explained that an opportunity came along to play one more time and he took it. That opportunity was a chance to play in the first Super Bowl of his career.

The Rams decided they needed Weddle because of injuries in the secondary. Initially, it seemed likely he would play sparingly, filling in as needed, but Weddle has become a full-time player who has made big contributions in three playoff games, leading the team in tackles in the conference championship game.

“They’re not going to keep him on the sideline,” says Whittingham. “It’s played out how I thought it would. His pitch count goes up every week, and he’s playing good ball. I focus on him when he’s in there, and he’s not just a fill-in. He’s still really good.”

“He’s got a brilliant football mind. He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever coached, if not the smartest. He is the Alex Smith of defense. He has a very high football IQ — it’s off the charts — and he’s incredibly intelligent in general.” — Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham about Eric Weddle

The national media and even Rams’ teammates have marveled at how quickly Weddle has learned the team’s defensive system and how well he has understood opposing offenses. Whittingham expected it.

“He’s got a brilliant football mind,” the coach says. “He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever coached, if not the smartest. He is the Alex Smith of defense. He has a very high football IQ — it’s off the charts — and he’s incredibly intelligent in general. He’s the most instinctive football player I’ve been around. Things come natural to him.” Referring to Weddle’s brief comeback with the Rams, Whittingham says, “He’s looked like he’s done it his whole life.”

It would be difficult to find a more credible source than Whittingham. He’s the only coach who got it right when Weddle was being evaluated as a high school player. He discovered Weddle at Alta Loma High, just south of Los Angeles, and he was convinced he would be a strong collegiate player.

The trouble was, no one else did. As Whittingham recalls, only a couple of lowly schools were interested in Weddle and not a single Pac-12 school pursued him even though he was playing in that conference’s backyard.

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“I kept thinking, ‘What am I missing?’” Whittingham recalls.

Weddle played several positions at Alta Loma — quarterback, receiver, safety, corner, kick returner — and excelled at all of them. He was a little undersized — 5-foot-11, 185 pounds — but he was athletic, smart, savvy and “he made plays,” says Whittingham, coachspeak for guys who make things happen.

As a senior Weddle had eye-popping statistics — 129 tackles, five interceptions, four forced fumbles, five recovered fumbles, 587 yards rushing, 22 touchdowns, 965 yards passing and five TD passes.

Whittingham thought Weddle was a special talent, but his confidence was a little shaken by the lack of interest from other schools and even from his own head coach, Meyer.

“I had to convince Urban that (Weddle) was going to be a good player,” recalls Whittingham. “Urban was very skeptical, to be honest. He was questioning it. He was saying, ‘Are you sure?’ But it wasn’t just Urban. Not many were recruiting him — I think only New Mexico State and maybe Colorado State.

“I wondered what was going on — did he rob a bank or something? I asked his head coach about it and he didn’t get it either. (Weddle) was a four-sport athlete — football, basketball, track and baseball. Between innings, he’d put on his spikes and run the 100-meter dash. I couldn’t believe the Pac-12 wasn’t all over him.”

Utah Utes star Eric Weddle celebrates a touchdown pass he threw against BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake, Utah Saturday Nov. 25, 2006. | August Miller, Deseret News

Perplexed, Whittingham did extra homework to see for himself if he was missing something. He stayed at the school for hours and watched video of every play from Weddle’s senior season.

That confirmed his original evaluation and the Utes signed Weddle, who immediately proved Whittingham to be right and then some.

Weddle was a four-year starter, alternating between corner and safety, as well as playing some running back on offense, mostly during his senior season.

“He was impactful from Day 1,” says Whittingham. In one game against Air Force, Weddle played every snap on defense and had eight tackles; on offense, he led the team in rushing with 73 yards and scored both of Utah’s touchdowns. He also was the holder for the game-winning field goal. He played a total of 90 plays.

“They’re cheating you, son,” Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry told him after the game. “They ought to give you two scholarships.” Wyoming coach Joe Glenn said, “He should win the Heisman Trophy.”

During his college career, Weddle scored six touchdowns on offense, one touchdown on a punt return and three touchdowns on defense. He totaled 143 tackles and 18 interceptions.

“I wondered what was going on — did he rob a bank or something? I asked his head coach about it and he didn’t get it either. (Weddle) was a four-sport athlete — football, basketball, track and baseball. Between innings, he’d put on his spikes and run the 100-meter dash. I couldn’t believe the Pac-12 wasn’t all over him.” — Kyle Whittingham

At the end of Weddle’s remarkable college career, Whittingham found himself in a position similar to the one he had been years earlier when he was trying to convince his peers that Weddle was a legit college prospect. He received phone calls from several NFL head coaches asking for his assessment of Weddle.

“I told them, ‘This guy is special. He’s going to come in and be the leader of your defense,’ I don’t think many of them bought it. It was like they were trying to get me to tell them his downside — like, why shouldn’t we take him? I felt like he was a first-round draft pick.”

The Chargers selected Weddle with the fifth pick of the second round in the 2007 draft, 37th overall. The Chargers were all-in on Weddle. They traded their second-, third- and fifth-round picks of the 2007 draft, plus their third-round pick of the 2008 draft to the Chicago Bears to move up to draft Weddle.

Weddle played 13 years in the NFL for the Chargers, Ravens and Rams. He was first-team All-Pro twice, and second-team All-Pro three times. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2010s. Ask Whittingham if he’s surprised by the immense success that Weddle had in the NFL, he answers immediately and firmly, “It didn’t surprise me at all. I knew he’d be very successful in that league.”

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay hugs defensive back Eric Weddle before divisional round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. | Jason Behnken, Associated Press

Weddle retired following the 2019 season, but his level of play at the time and his reputation were such that teams continued to call. During the 2020 season, a half-dozen tried to coax him out of retirement. This time Whittingham didn’t have to convince anyone of Weddle’s value.

A month ago the Rams — the team Weddle played for in 2019 — made an 11th-hour call to ask Weddle to leave retirement and join their quest for a championship. Now Weddle is headed to the first Super Bowl of his remarkable professional career, and there aren’t many observers who are enjoying the ride as much as Whittingham.