NEW CARLISLE — An assistant football coach from Iowa visiting New Prairie back in the spring caught sight of Hunter Whitenack -- not that he's easy to miss -- and quickly asked Cougars associate head coach Bill Gumm what year he was.
When Gumm told him Whitenack was in ninth grade, the coach's jaw about hit the hallway floor.
"He was like, 'Holy cow, this is a freshman?!'" Gumm said.
Big things are happening for the big sophomore as practice officially starts today across the state. At 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Whitenack is considerably larger, a couple inches and about 35 pounds of the 'right' weight, than he was a season ago.
"The thing you can't coach is the genetics," said Gumm, who handles recruiting for head coach Russ Radtke. "Chris McGrew was walking by and (the coach) asked, 'Who's that?' I told him it was our other offensive tackle. The only difference between Chris and Hunter is he's 6-1. Hunter has that size and a lot of athleticism. He has all the qualities colleges are looking for."
Iowa isn't the only one who's noticed. Whitenack had campus visits to Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Purdue, and attended Cincinnati's game last season against Central Florida. The stack of mail at home -- yes, colleges still send actual letters -- is growing faster than Whitenack.
"A lot of schools send stuff like daily," Whitenack said, estimating the school count at about 80, including the SEC and Pac 12 as well as the Big Ten. "At the beginning of (last) year, I started getting emails. Now I get three or four a day, from all over the country. At first, it was weird. I was hearing from schools and here I am, right out of middle school. I hadn't even played a varsity down yet. It was a lot of big schools real fast, which is surprising. I've liked every school so far."
Fresh out of eighth grade, Whitenack stepped right into the starting lineup for New Prairie, the first freshman Gumm can recall starting in his 19 years at the Class 4A school. Lining up against older players with facial hair, driver's licenses and tattoos, three things Whitenack didn't have, he certainly held his own.
"Here's a 14-, 15-year-old kid going against 18-year-old men," Gumm said, "and he had absolutely no issue. He started every game."
There's no doubt Radtke wouldn't have had him out there if he couldn't handle it. Those questions are now all in the past.
"As the year went on, I got better with it," Whitenack said. "We had big kids last year I was going against in practice. I like pass blocking better, but I feel I'm better at run blocking."
Not surprisingly, Whitenack boasts hefty lifting numbers -- a 500-pound squat, a 315 bench press and a 265 power clean -- but weights entail more than just bulk.
"It's not really how much you lift, but how fast you can lift," he said. "I took a lot of steps in the weight room. I feel I've gotten way bigger, way faster. I feel I'm more capable of finishing blocks. Last year, I had a few pancakes a game. This year, I expect pancakes every play."
Whitenack has been around New Prairie football all his life. His dad Bobby, New Prairie's head wrestling coach, was on the Cougars football staff when Hunter was born. A large man himself, Bobby Whitenack is no stranger to the recruiting process, having played at Manchester. In a way, Hunter's been prepared for this journey for a long time.
"He's been on the field since he could walk," Bobby said. "He's seen the good and the bad. I don't know any kid who's spent more time around it. His work ethic has always been that of someone who wants to get bigger and better. He knows he needs to do a lot of work. He's been breaking down film at home. Everyone does in our house, including my wife."
The family has gone with Hunter to all of the colleges. The emphasis remains on the big picture, speaking to professors at schools as well as coaches.
"The college football perspective is a little different," Bobby said. "It's nice to see the other side of it. The thing we talk about when we go places, it's not just about football, it's the whole package. It's about the culture they have there. Can you get along with your peers? Can you thrive being around those guys? The coaching staff is a huge part. There's a lot of one-on-one time with them. The most important thing is the grades. You have to get an education and leave there with a career."
The rapid rise in interest can be a lot for any 16-year-old to process. It's easy to start thinking you're great when it's what people are telling you, but Hunter has managed it with veteran aplomb.
"I've enjoyed it all so far," he said. "It's like I was just a freshman before and now everyone knows who I am. It's different, but it's fun. (The attention) doesn't mean anything right now. It just shows me what I need to work toward, to improve. When I get the first offer, it will all start coming together."
While Hunter's long-term goal is to play at a top-tier Division I school, his short-term focus is on a Cougars team with high expectations.
"One thing that stands out is his maturity," Gumm said. "He's not wrapped up about himself and his college future. We discuss things, but he's not going around talking about Notre Dame coming to see him. His focus is on how he's going to help New Prairie get back to Indianapolis."
The coming season will include plenty of Saturday trips to games and what figures to be a continued rise in interest. As the sky becomes the limit, can Hunter keep his feet on the ground?
"He's far from fame," his dad said. "He has a long way to go to get where he wants to be. It's a process to get there and I think he's enjoying that part. We've found out about places we didn't even know were out there. It could be some place we don't even know about. We're just trying to find out which is the best fit for him, academically, career-wise, and a place he feels he can play. He keeps it to himself. He has personal goals. He wants to win a state championship with the team. That's all we're worried about right now."