Georgia Tech’s Keion White takes unconventional path to potential first-round pick

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

MOBILE, Ala. — The labyrinthine NFL scouting process never ceases to amaze. This imperfect science alters the courses of multibillion-dollar operations. It gets people promoted. It gets them fired. It makes some dreams realized and others crushed. It creates seemingly endless fan dialogue and sometimes even takes priority over the on-field product.

Some collegiate players who’ve gone largely unnoticed – even by the most enthusiastic football consumer – suddenly will be introduced to the masses in the first round of a mock draft. Some who’ve been winning championships and looking like bona fide pros actually are considered fringe NFL players by those who earn a living attempting to get this right.

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Georgia Tech edge rusher Keion White is among those who’ve surged into the public eye during the infant stages of this pre-draft season. The Yellow Jackets weren’t getting national attention. White wasn’t getting recognized even to the point where he had built buzz. Yet as February begins, it’s increasingly realistic that White becomes a first-round draft choice.

A Tech player hasn’t been selected in the first round since Derrick Morgan (No. 16) and Demaryius Thomas (No. 22) in 2010. White might even be selected earlier than both, if current projections are any indication.

Tech won only eight games over the past two seasons. This past season, the coach was fired after four games, and another retool commenced. Hidden in those struggles, though, was White, an athletic marvel quickly discovered by those paid to get it right.

To say White’s path to this week’s Senior Bowl was unconventional would be underselling it. He didn’t garner much interest as a recruit out of Garner Magnet High School in North Carolina, leading him to consider the military before Old Dominion offered him a scholarship.

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White began his college career as a tight end. He shifted to defensive end in 2019, a coach’s decision, and posted 19 tackles for loss and earned second-team All-Conference USA honors. He impressed against quality competition, too, notching 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack against Virginia and another two tackles for loss against Virginia Tech.

Old Dominion didn’t play football in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and White transferred to Georgia Tech that December. It was considered a coup for then-coach Geoff Collins, but White broke his ankle before the season and didn’t debut until November 2021.

White said he has 14 screws, a plate and a TightRope implant in his repaired ankle. And while “everyone” was telling him to sit out the 2021 season, he said, White decided to return for four games. Those proved invaluable.

“I needed to get on the field and (struggle) so I could get better,” he said. “I needed to (struggle). It pushed me to work more.”

After appearing in only four games from 2020-21, White returned in his best form. He had 57 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. His finest showing came Nov. 19 in Chapel Hill last season, when he sacked Heisman Trophy candidate Drake Maye three times and the Jackets upset the No. 13 Tar Heels.

“I appreciate all the highs and the lows,” White said, talking with reporters following a practice at the Senior Bowl. “So definitely appreciate the story. The (ankle) injury made me become a better player as far as technique and not relying so much on my athleticism and wanting to learn the game a little bit more.”

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Watch a little of White’s play and it’s easy to see the appeal. He’s a true power rusher, and his speed pops. He can rush from multiple spots. He’ll need to expand his pass-rushing arsenal, but it’s important to remember he’s still new to his position. Despite his older age by draft standards, he’s extremely raw. With proper development, White could explode into a high-end quarterback hunter.

“Definitely my versatility,” White said Tuesday when asked what he considered his best attribute. “So being able to play multiple positions, from three (technique) to five tech to seven through nine. … It’s like what (Steelers coach) Mike T(omlin) says, your best ability is your availability, so if I’m available at all positions, all spots across the board, that’s going to help me.”

He added Wednesday: “My game is all about being physical, playing with physicality and power. And just being a dominator out there.”

There’s always a risk with these types of players, yet the payoff is huge – and we’re reminded of that every year, seeing how the NFL prioritizes traits. Teams will be inclined to bet on White’s profile. Take the recent projections as evidence.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper surprised some people when he put White at No. 19 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his latest mock draft. While White had been placed in the second, third and fourth rounds in those way-too-early exercises, not many – if any – went to Kiper’s lengths.

“I’m just appreciative and thankful because from a smaller school, being a tight end at first, just the journey of getting there,” White said. “I don’t really care too much about the mock drafts and everything because you can really go anywhere, with the (general managers) especially, at the end of the day. But I’m appreciative that people are (thinking highly of me).”

It turns out Kiper might have undervalued White. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, another prominent scouting guru, ranked White No. 8 overall on his latest big board. Jeremiah, a former scout, often is ahead of the curve and introduces the larger audience to players the NFL community regards highly. Typically, as the process goes on, rankings are more about media catching up on NFL intel than they are teams drastically changing their boards.

For perspective, White was ranked higher than every Georgia Bulldogs defender except lineman Jalen Carter, who topped Jeremiah’s board and might go No. 1 overall. White was the fifth-ranked defender and the third edge rusher behind Alabama’s Will Anderson (No. 2) and Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson (No. 7). Carter, Anderson and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (No. 3) were the only SEC products rated higher than White, who was the top-ranked ACC player on Jeremiah’s board.

“Overall, White is one of my favorite players in the class and could emerge as the top defender in the class,” Jeremiah said.

As for whether White considers himself a top-10 player in the class: “That’s for the coaches, general managers to decide. I just focus on what I can control.”

If he continues making the most of what he can control, the NFL won’t just tell him he’s a first-round pick; a team will confirm it.