“‘What’s going on to my left, what’s going on to my right?’” said Knight, now the defensive line coach at Toledo. “‘What’s going on beside me? Why are we doing it this way? What happens if we do it this way? What happens if that person does his instead?’ Like, he wanted to know everything.”
In its way, White’s unceasing questioning served a purpose in helping him reach this point. After a standout season for the Jackets, White has earned an invitation to the NFL draft in Kansas City, Missouri, an indication that he is likely to be a first-rounder. If he isn’t picked in the first round Thursday night, he figures to go early in the second round Friday. To Knight, the many questions were indicative of his motivation to improve his game.
“What really sticks out is the fact that he was a guy that valued self-improvement,” Knight said. “I never had to push him to get better at this or get better at that. He’s going to ask the right type of questions, and he improved on his own. So that made him pretty easy to coach.”
White is the top draft candidate from Tech in the draft, which begins Thursday with the first round, continues Friday with the second and third rounds and concludes Saturday with the fourth through seventh rounds.
Along with White, linebackers Ayinde Eley and Charlie Thomas, wide receivers E.J. Jenkins and Malachi Carter, running back Hassan Hall and offensive lineman William Lay all took part in Tech’s Pro Day on March 16 in front of NFL coaches and scouts. After White, Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline projected Eley, Thomas, Jenkins, Carter and Hall as likely to sign as undrafted free agents. It’s conceivable one or more could get selected in a late round. Jenkins, who auditioned as a tight end, had an impressive Pro Day workout that helped him net pre-draft visits with the Colts and Ravens.
As for White, Knight holds but the loftiest hopes for his career.
“He’s barely scratching the surface,” Knight said. “If he ends up with a coach that knows what they’re doing and he respects, he’s going to take off.”
While his physical abilities were made clear at the NFL draft combine – he broad jumped 9′9″ and had a 34-inch vertical leap and later ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.7-second range at Tech’s Pro Day, all superior scores for a player 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds – his learning aptitude and drive could be separators.
Knight stopped being bothered by White not taking notes in spring practice in 2022, after Knight had just become the defensive ends coach. At one practice when the ends were short in number, Knight switched White from the field-side end to the rush end, which he hadn’t played previously.
White proceeded to play the position without any mistakes of alignment or assignment. Knight said he realized “that’s the reason he’s asking those 17,000 questions – that’s how he learns. And he takes it and applies it from there. I think sitting and writing is distracting to him.”
Knight witnessed (and spurred) White’s development even through the course of the 2022 season. Playing three different positions – both defensive end spots and “3 technique” defensive tackle – White began to excel as he gained consistency in the different techniques for each position.
While he was impactful in the season opener against Clemson, “he was just playing ball,” Knight said. It was in the fourth game of the season, against Central Florida, that Knight noticed White’s play taking form.
“And then the Pitt game, he got better, and then it just kept going,” Knight said.
His performance in the upset of North Carolina in the 11th game of the season – seven tackles, four for loss and three sacks – was impeccable. Knight called his sack off a spin move “the exact technique” that he coached White to use.
“That’s small things people aren’t going to notice,” Knight said. “They just think he’s just spinning around. But even when he did it, and the how that he did and the finish, it was everything that he’s been coached to do.”
To Knight, the sky is the limit for White as he holds his preponderance of traits necessary for long-term NFL success. Even if he doesn’t become an All-Pro, Knight projects him as a player who will be a solid professional for several years.
“He could easily be one of those guys,” Knight said. “He can easily be a Pro Bowler, too. I’m not saying he can’t.”
Knight will be paying attention Thursday, and not only so he can be proved right for his prediction in 2020 that White would someday be a first-round pick. (Knight led Tech’s recruitment of White from Old Dominion.)
“My job is to assist in any way that I can and help these guys accomplish what their goals are,” Knight said. “That’s what I get a kick out of, and I’ll be happier about that more than anything.”
GEORGIA TECH DRAFT HOPEFULS
Malachi Carter, WR
Ayinde Eley, LB
Hassan Hall, RB
E.J. Jenkins, TE/WR
William Lay, OL
Charlie Thomas, LB
Keion White, DE