— It turns out his first spoken word wasn't "mama" or "dada." So when Chandler Whitmer was asked Sunday about when he first dreamed of becoming a Division I starting quarterback, his explanation wasn't entirely surprising.
"My first word was 'ball,' " Whitmer said at the UConn football media session in advance of the season opener Thursday against UMass. "So I've probably dreamed about it since I was just a little guy. That's all I've known my entire life."
Growing up an only child in Georgia, Whitmer started playing football at 7. He started playing quarterback in the sixth grade. In a 2009 ESPNChicago.com article during his senior season at Downers Grove South High in Illinois, Whitmer listed his lofty aspirations in order:
State championship, national championship, Heisman Trophy.
"Hey, you've got to set goals for yourself," Whitmer said.
That's the danger of the Internet.
"Yeah," Whitmer said, laughing. "It's always out there."
UConn fans aren't expecting a national championship or a Heisman Trophy from Whitmer, but let's be blunt. The difference between a 5-7 finish and a bowl appearance last season was a quarterback. That's why UConn last fall went after the juco honorable mention All-American out of Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan. And that's a major reason why Whitmer, eager to play immediately, accepted the scholarship offer.
After all the uncertainty and consternation at quarterback in 2011, UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni did everybody, including himself, a favor by announcing before the start of August practice that Whitmer was No. 1.
"It feels good not to have that hanging over my head and just be able to go out and play," Whitmer said. "I think it was good, so we could get the chemistry going."
"I feel good about Chandler," Pasqualoni said. "He is right on top of his game."
And then Pasqualoni said he was happy with Johnny McEntee and Scott McCummings, and that Casey Cochran has been working his butt off with a cast on his broken wrist.
It seems like since the moment Whitmer completed 18 of 27 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the UConn spring game and observers like me drooled at his possibilities, the coaches have sent up caution flags. Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone immediately pointed to his one interception, a needless jump ball in the end zone. Whitmer admitted he got a little greedy.
"I think Chandler, like a lot of young quarterbacks, at times tries to do too much," Pasqualoni said. "He's getting better in that regard. Sometimes it's not the worst thing to pull the ball down, run and get on the ground before you get killed. It's not the worst thing if you have to punt the ball when you have a punter and defense like we have.
"We're not expecting him to go out and win every game for us. He has a good team around him. Just don't try to do too much."
Whitmer says he gets the message loud and clear.
"It's not my first time playing. I've made those mistakes," he said. "Hopefully, I've learned from them. I've got to accept what the defenses give me. Turnover margin is what usually wins games. Protect the ball … Don't force it … Check down ..."
He knows the mantra.
The 6-1, 191-pound sophomore also can do some things we haven't seen at Rentschler Field in a while. He's nimble. He can deliver a sweet ball. We know Lyle McCombs can run. We know the defense is good. We knew that stuff last year and the bottom line was 5-7. Whitmer looks like he can be a difference maker.
Pasqualoni said the interest in Whitmer was sparked by availability. The coaching staff wanted to get at least one and preferably two quarterbacks in for last spring's semester. They got both. Cochran completed high school early. Get them through spring ball. Get them through the playbook before preseason camp. That's the logic.
"We looked at who would fit our system, who was available and who could be admitted from a transfer standpoint," Pasqualoni said. "Chandler had a great season with Butler [3,022 yards, 25 TDs, but 14 interceptions]. He's very good student.
"We evaluated if he was our kind of guy and we were his kind of people. He really liked the school, our system. Chandler really fit the bill. I didn't promise him anything but a chance to compete. He accepted that."
"We had season tickets to the Falcons," Whitmer said. "I was at every single game when Michael Vick was there."
So you patterned your game after Vick?
"Absolutely not," he said, laughing.
Whitmer's dad, Mike, a chief information officer for a staffing firm, took a job in the Chicago area. After a year of traveling back and forth, he asked his son if he'd have a problem moving. Chandler headed to Downers Grove South — comedian Emo Philips' alma mater, trivia buffs — and became one of Ron Zook's highly touted Illinois recruits. After a redshirt year, however, he transferred to Butler instead of sitting behind Nathan Scheelhaase. No gripes.
Butler ran a pro set Whitmer liked. UConn runs a pro set Whitmer likes. Bingo. We had a match.
"[UConn] fits with what I do best," said Whitmer, a pre-kinesiology major who has an eye on the strength-training industry, maybe owning his own facility. "Academically, football-wise, UConn's a great opportunity overall. And the coaches were very honest up front."
Quarterback isn't just throwing, of course. It's leading. It's handling adversity. Three schools in three years, you've got to believe at least off the field he is battled-tested emotionally.
"I've seen a lot of things," Whitmer said. "I've still got a lot to learn. This still is my first year playing Division I. There are a lot of things I haven't seen yet. I'm going to take the punches and see what happens."
There's a maturity to this kid. At 21, with three years of eligibility, he engages. He has a strong outlook. You can hear it in little things. Like when he was asked what leadership means, he answered, "Every day getting the job done, no days off. Some people can lead when things are going good, but when things are going bad and you drop your head, get all down, that's not being a leader. I try to stay at the same level and be the same guy every day."
You can hear it when asked about the difference between junior and major college. He says everyone on the field is fast, not just some. And then he says, "This is a business. Every game is serious."
And you hear it in the way he's so eager to spread the praise to his receiver corps, one that appears much deeper and diverse than in recent seasons. He raves about Mike Smith's handle on the offense, about transfer Shakim Phillips' 39-inch vertical and the way he goes after deep balls. He raves how Nick Williams does things cut-wise he didn't know were possible. And raves how tight end Ryan Griffin is "Spider-Man" because he goes up and gets anything.
"It's scary all the weapons we have," Whitmer said. "I'm really thankful for the opportunity."
Mike Whitmer recently got a job outside of Boston. The family's back in Georgia. Chandler is stoked because his parents will be able to see all his games.
"I can't wait," Chandler Whitmer said.
After all, he's only been dreaming about Thursday night for 21 years.