Dec. 26, 2014
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– You never know where a team’s defining moment will come from — especially a team that is 10-2 — but chances usually are pretty good you’re not going to point to an opponent’s 74-yard run.
Yet there may not be a moment that better defines the personality of the 2014 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who are on their way to play in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 against Mississippi State, than the 74-yard scamper they allowed to Pittsburgh running back James Conner on a first-and-10 play with a 7-0 lead in the first quarter of their Oct. 25 game in Pittsburgh.
What made the play special was that the Panthers needed to go 75 yards for a touchdown, but a play by junior cornerback D.J. White prevented Conner from getting that final yard. White chased down the ACC Player of the Year, forcing a fumble which rolled into the end zone and out of bounds. A game-tying touchdown was transformed into a game-changing touchback, as the Jackets would score on the ensuing drive to make it 14-0 on the way to a 56-28 blowout.
What made the play season-defining was what White didn’t do in the 73 yards he had to run leading up to that final yard. He didn’t quit. He broke away from his block then, hit full sprint, passing teammates P.J. Davis and Jamal Golden to catch and strip Conner.
“Coach Roof actually told me that he got a lot of messages talking about how good a hustle play it was and that it kind of encouraged my teammates and kind of sparked them on,” White recalled. “[Teammates said] `It was like a great play’ `It really got us going,’ `It was the biggest play of the game,’ stuff like that. Very flattering stuff.”
The funny thing is the chase came naturally.
“Honestly, I was surprised at how far I came to get him,” he said. “Instincts kicked in. Just go get him and then make the play. It’s just that team attitude we have of not quitting.”
That attitude is why the Jackets continued to grind and, in a manner similar to White chasing down Conner, caught and passed Duke to reach the ACC Championship game.
No one better personifies that spirit than White.
“D.J. always gives outstanding effort,” said defensive backs coach Joe Speed. “He’s going to empty the tank. Going into the game, you don’t know if you’re going to play five snaps or 100 snaps but he tries to make all the snaps look the same and that’s 100 miles an hour.
“I think [the forced fumble] set the tone in terms of, his teammates looked at him and recognized that that was an outstanding effort,” Speed continued. “Everyone had a picture of, `Okay, that’s what 100 percent effort looks like.’ I think it inspired other guys to say, `If I’m feeling a little bit tired, let me step it up a notch. D.J. made that play. I can run an extra five yards and strain my body to get to the ball.’ I think that had a positive effect on the whole team that day.”
White had a positive effect on the whole team every day. It began in 2013 when he got a taste of starting and finished with a flourish. In 2014, he hit the ground running in the spring and never stopped. He enters the Orange Bowl fifth on the team in tackles (62, 48 solo), and has helped the Jackets create 27 turnovers, which turned into 123 points. Every White turnover has resulted in something big. The team turned four of them into 20 points (a TD and two field goals off three interceptions and a touchdown off the forced fumble).
The lone turnover that didn’t result in points netted the Jackets a lot more. It was the interception of Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason in the first overtime session, which sealed the Jackets’ first win against Georgia in six years.
D.J.’s ability to jump routes led directly to points at NC State, when he picked off a pass in the flat and went untouched 48 yards down the sidelines. That route-jump was a precursor to the overtime pick in Athens.
Speed credits White’s solid work ethic for his ability to be in the right place at the right big time.
“He’s a film junkie. He’ll study wide receiver releases, which foot is up, where do they like to look, when they come out of their break do their hips sink and things like that,” said Speed. “That helps him be one step quicker to where he needs to go. You would love to have everybody who’s that into it in terms of studying the game. He knows how that helps him come game-time situations be one step faster with where he needs to be. Everything he does is with a purpose. Whether he’s watching film, asking questions, studying his playbook, everything he does has a purpose. The game is important to him and his school and his college experience is important to him. He’s definitely a well-rounded young man and is doing a great job.”
While White has shown he’s willing to give his all in pursuit of victory on the field, he’s as dedicated in going above and beyond to be a winner in the classroom and in life. He’s a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Board (SAAB) and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). That pursuit and the way he handles himself has made a great impression on those around him.
“D.J. is the true definition of a `Georgia Tech Guy,'” said redshirt senior safety Isaiah Johnson, a mentor to White. “From day one when I met him I knew there was something special about him. I speak with him and let him know `I’m happy to play with you.’ I will always look back and say, `D.J. White is a good guy, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to play with him.'”
“The peer compliments are some of the best compliments that you can get, especially from a veteran like Isaiah, who’s had plenty of snaps and seen D.J. arrive here on campus and come along as a freshman,” said Speed. “He definitely has his priorities in order. He’s got great balance, has a wonderful family, he’s got siblings, one of them is in the Navy, a couple of them are still in high school, loving parents and he knows that being the oldest, he’s the example for the other siblings in the family. So that’s what he strives to do. He’s a great example to emulate and he’s got high aspirations to be the best corner he can be.”
As the Yellow Jackets head to a bowl game for the 18th consecutive season and the Orange Bowl for the second time in five, their aspirations are sky-high. They can’t wait to test themselves against No. 7 Mississippi State, an SEC West power that was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Ideally White would like to try to match the results he had last year in the Music City Bowl, coincidentally against an SEC West school, which also hails from Mississippi. Against Ole Miss, White had a career-high 13 tackles (11 solo), forced a pair of fumbles and recorded his first interception against the Rebels, but Tech lost, 25-13.
That was a breakout game but he’s come a long way since then and Speed expects White to continue to show that growth against the Bulldogs.
“It’s time for D.J. to play the role that Isaiah did and school up some of these younger guys,” Speed said. “He’s hungry for knowledge, but now he’s accumulated enough knowledge to start passing along to those other guys like Isaiah did to him and like Jemea [Thomas] and Louis Young and all those guys, who went on before.
“He’s not the guy who’s going to go out rah-rah and beat his chest and what-not. He’s always going to be a student of the game and work hard,” he added. “He’s going to make some plays and, at that position, unfortunately, you’re NOT going to make some plays. But what I do know from him, he’s never going to quit. He’s never going to quit.”
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