Upon further review, D.J. White conceded it was a pretty remarkable play. Immediately after Georgia Tech’s 56-28 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, the Yellow Jackets cornerback said he thought he could run down Panthers running back James Conner as he broke away for an apparent 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
However, White later saw what everyone else saw — he was engaged with a Pittsburgh blocker at the Panthers’ 27-yard line when Conner broke through the line. By the time White fought off the block and took up pursuit, Conner was about five yards downfield, building to a dead sprint.
But, legs whirring and arms pumping, White reeled in Conner, who conceded after the game that he eased up because he didn’t think anyone could catch him. Just short of the goal line, White lunged at the ball, which came loose and then bounced out of the end zone, turning what would have been a touchdown and a score tied at 7-7 into Tech’s play of the game and perhaps even more. Pittsburgh was denied the touchdown, and Tech received the ball at its 20. The Jackets scored on a 79-yard touchdown pass three plays later for a 14-0 lead to trigger the rout.
“Honestly, I was actually surprised at how far I came to get him,” White said Tuesday. “Like I said, in my mind, on the field, you just react. You’re not thinking, just going.”
The play earned White, from Union Grove High, a spot among ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays” on “SportsCenter” that night. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof called it “just an unbelievable effort play.”
In a season when the Tech defense hasn’t had much to celebrate, White has contributed two of the more significant plays of the season. Before chasing down Conner, he intercepted Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer with 1:58 to play, setting up the Jackets’ game-winning field goal as time expired in their 27-24 win in Blacksburg, Va., on Sept. 20.
White’s 40 tackles rank fifth most on the team and are 10 shy of his total from last season. The two plays withstanding, White has not necessarily stood out, but he’s improving, and the play at Pittsburgh typified why.
“Great example for everyone to emulate,” secondary coach Joe Speed said. “If we can get all 11 guys, and even more guys, playing like that, we’ll win a lot more ballgames.”
Speed said that White brings the same high-effort mentality daily to the practice field, working on technique before and after practices. He also calls him a “night film junkie.”
“He asks me every week, ‘Hey, Coach, did you break down the receivers yet?’” Speed said.
White’s approach and outlook are unusual in their maturity. The position he plays, perhaps, has helped. Playing cornerback means little is hidden.
Two Saturdays ago, when North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams converted a critical fourth-and-6 with a 36-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of Tech’s loss to the Tar Heels, White was the one unable to elevate to contest the pass. (Against a near-perfect pass by Williams, White said he lost the ball as wide receiver Mack Hollins rose up to make the catch.)
The play, coincidentally, took place on nearly the identical spot on the field, albeit a different stadium, as his strip of Conner — on the left sideline, inside the Tech 5-yard line.
“You win some, you lose some, I guess,” he said.
After the losses, he hears the critiques from friends text messaging him and from fans on social media.
“The biggest thing is just really keeping it in perspective, like, Why do you play the game?” White said. “I don’t play the game for them. I play for my teammates and for my family, so going on the field, you know those things are going to happen, but it’s a maturing process. As a younger player, those things are tough to deal with, but I feel like, for me, it really helped me grow up.”