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Inside The Chart: Back To Work

by Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets)

Keion White has never been afraid to work.

That mindset propelled him from a tight end with zero scholarship offers to a heat-seeking, havoc-wreaking ACC defensive end.

It turned a willowy kid who couldn’t bench press 95 pounds before his freshman year of high school into a member of The Athletic’s “Freaks List,” honoring the most physically impressive players in college football.

And it’s why White, Georgia Tech’s redshirt senior transfer from Old Dominion, may be the only player in the Football Bowl Subdivision who earned all-conference honors at his position … while delivering pizzas on the side.

“It’s always been a part of who I was,” said the Garner, N.C., native.

White reminded fans of his vast potential on Monday in Georgia Tech’s season opener against No. 4 Clemson at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Making his second career start for the Yellow Jackets, the 6-foot-5, 286-pounder finished with five tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss. It surpassed his tackles total from all of last season, when an injury limited him to Georgia Tech’s final four games.

“Last year, I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. And even now, I still feel like I have some work to do, but just being back and being able to contribute to the team a little bit more is definitely exciting for me,” he said.

“It’s nice to finally have him healthy and moving the way that he knows he can move. I just love his physical style of play,” added head coach Geoff Collins.

That White would work for something shouldn’t be a surprise.  That ethic has driven him throughout his life – on the field, in the weight room, and in ways you wouldn’t expect.

***

In his first extensive action as a Yellow Jacket, Keion White was a dominant force in Georgia Tech’s season opener against No. 4 Clemson (photo: Danny Karnik)

 

It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time, Keion White felt intimidated by a weight room.

Going into his freshman year at Garner High School outside Raleigh, he estimates he stood 5-foot-8, weighed 150 pounds, and had never lifted before. On a football team that featured future N.C. State and Indianapolis Colts running back Nyheim Hines, White quickly felt overmatched.

“I remember going into the weight room and seeing all the varsity players putting up all this weight. I tried to get under the bar and I remember I couldn’t even do 95 pounds,” White recalled. His coaches nearly cut him from the junior varsity.

A growth spurt pushed him to 6-foot-1 as a sophomore, and the weight room gains soon followed. By his junior year, he had carved a niche as a 205-pound linebacker, but on offense he played out of position at center.

Yes, center. It seems like a laughable miscasting for someone with such obvious physical gifts, but White admits he brought it on himself.

“I made a joke with my head coach at the time. I was like, ‘Yeah, I bet you I can snap better than the center we got.’ And he said, ‘Okay, show me.’ So I did, and that’s why he ended up putting me at center,” he explained.

White also took on extra work that season, volunteering to serve as Garner’s scout team defensive end and tight end during practice. His coaches noticed his potential.

“My senior year, they decided to give me a shot,” he said.

White strung together a solid senior season for Garner, catching 20 passes and earning all-conference honors for the Trojans. A few FCS programs showed middling interest, and North Carolina, N.C. State and Duke were intrigued enough to offer him a spot as a preferred walk-on, but his senior year passed without a single scholarship offer. The real world began tapping at his shoulder.

“I was actually ready to go to the military. I had already taken the ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] and wasn’t even thinking about going to college and playing football,” he said.

Old Dominion finally came through with a scholarship offer two weeks before National Signing Day. White was in line to start as a true freshman before an injury forced him to redshirt. He rebounded to start eight games in 2018 and led his position group with 11 catches. It appeared the Monarchs had their tight end of the future.

Yet after the season, Old Dominion’s head coach approached White about moving to defensive end, believing his skills better fit there. Did White really want to give up such a promising trajectory at tight end?

He agreed – on a condition.

“I was like, ‘I mean, okay. As long as I’m going to play.’ I tried it out for spring ball, and that spring ball, I did pretty good at defense. So they said, ‘I think we’re going to stick with you.’ And the rest is history,” he said.

He went about changing his body as well. The man who entered Old Dominion with six percent body fat began the 2019 season weighing 267 pounds. White established himself that year as one of the most disruptive linemen in the Group of Five, ranking 10th nationally and tying a school record with 19.0 tackles for loss. He also proved he could clean up against ACC competition: in games against Virginia and Virginia Tech, he finished with 14 combined tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Conference USA named him second-team all-conference.

His hustle didn’t stop at the field either. Even with a full football schedule, a full load of classes and a full scholarship, White worked part-time jobs throughout his time at Old Dominion, beginning with a stint as a security guard his freshman year. That may sound rare for a scholarship football player – and borderline quaint in the NIL era – but White never thought much of it. In elementary school, he mowed lawns around the neighborhood and sold candy bars to classmates (an off-the-books enterprise that occasionally got him into trouble, he jokes). His first job came at a Party City as a 14-year-old, helping out during Halloween season.

White had his Pell Grant money and cost-of-attendance stipend to offset his living expenses at Old Dominion. But he had always worked, no matter how busy sports and class kept him. Why stop now?

“I just like having extra money,” he explained. “I’ve always had a ‘fix-your-own-problems’ mentality.”

And so, a few months after his record-setting, all-conference sophomore season, White signed up to be a delivery driver for a Domino’s Pizza in Norfolk, Va. For more than a year, one of the most dominant defensive linemen in Conference USA ferried pizzas around Norfolk in the first car he ever bought, a black, 2004 Chevy Tahoe.

“Terrible on gas, so I really wasn’t making that much money,” White laughed. He still keeps his blue XXL Domino’s polo in his closet – along with the uniforms of all the other places he’s worked.

Asked for any funny delivery stories, White chuckled. A 6-foot-4 delivery driver with boa constrictor arms didn’t have to deal with many surly customers. If people at his jobs asked if he played football, he joked that he played chess or was a competitive dancer.

“My motto is, I’m not too good to do anything,” White said, adding that while he occasionally sets aside money for trips, he’s big into saving.

He had more time to work than he anticipated in 2020. In August of that year, Old Dominion announced it would opt out of playing football that season due to concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic. White entered the transfer portal in October, worked out on his own, took his remaining classes for his bachelor’s degree in real estate, and naturally, picked up a job waiting tables at Stripers Waterside, a seafood restaurant along the riverfront in Norfolk.

His statistics as a sophomore made him a sought-after commodity in the transfer portal. When coaches contacted him, he usually began the conversation by asking what they thought of his film.

“Georgia Tech was one of the rare people who criticized me instead of just praising me. And I really liked that,” he said of his recruitment by Collins and defensive line coach Larry Knight.

For White, who aspires to work in real estate and commercial development, the prospect of living in Atlanta also appealed to him. As part of his master’s program in building construction and facility management at Tech, he did a summer internship with the mechanical contracting company McKenney’s, Inc., learning the ins and outs of financing building projects.

“There’s no other city like it. All the business in the south runs through Atlanta. So from a life-after-football perspective, Atlanta and Georgia Tech was really intriguing to me,” he said.

Now comes cashing in on the intrigue Georgia Tech fans have had of him.

***

For the last year-and-a-half, White’s numbers at Old Dominion have offered both a promise and a tease.

He was hailed as an impact transfer, expected to provide immediate pass rushing help to the Yellow Jackets’ defense. Four months after he committed to Tech, though, White suffered an ankle injury while still in Norfolk. He plugged away at rehab, but progress was painstaking. He willed himself back for the final four games of 2021, though it was clear his mobility was compromised.

Combined with Old Dominion’s cancelled 2020 season, White had hardly played in live games for the past two years. Did he worry he’d ever recapture the form that made him such a devastating playmaker in 2019?

“I don’t really worry too much about the future. All you can control is the present. To me, the future doesn’t even exist. I just attacked my rehab and did everything I could possibly do to be the player that I am now, not the player I was then,” he said.

Physically, he doesn’t appear to have lost a step. To prepare for the potential of playing on the interior more this season, White bulked up 20 pounds and entered the year weighing almost 290. The added weight hasn’t come at the expense of his explosiveness: during Georgia Tech’s offseason conditioning, White vertical-jumped 32 inches, clocked 21 miles per hour on a sprint, and bench pressed 225 pounds 38 times (proving his days of straining to lift 95 pounds are long gone). Those numbers earned him the No. 20 spot on The Athletic’s “Freaks List,” a ranking curated by longtime college football writer Bruce Feldman of the 100 most absurd physical specimens in Division I.

“His maturity, his presence, his physicality, and just every single day the focus, the demeanor, the attitude that he has just permeates our entire team locker room. His seriousness, his focus – those things are critical right now and I’m proud that he’s here and leading in that manner,” Collins said.

White appreciated the acknowledgement in The Athletic, though he says he’s far more concerned with posting strong numbers on the field. The first step in that process came Monday, and it continues Saturday when Georgia Tech hosts Western Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium (7 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports). Though still irked by the loss to Clemson, White said he was tickled to receive a postgame Snapchat from his former manager at Stripers Waterside in Norfolk. It showed him and his old coworkers gathered around a TV at the restaurant, watching White play against the Tigers.

They may have been impressed by their former waiter’s performance, but White left Mercedes-Benz Stadium feeling dissatisfied. He spoke this week about keeping a stronger base and using his hands to better get off blocks, areas he hopes to correct against Western Carolina.

“I look at the film, and I could have done a lot better than what I was doing on the film Monday night,” he said.

So Wednesday morning, as the Yellow Jackets gathered for practice at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Keion White did what he’s always done.

He got back to work.

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