by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
Hometown: Cypress (TX)
Star rating: Two-star, No. 124 S
Ht/Wt: 5-10, 178 pounds
Other offers: Southeastern Louisiana
What’s to like
Landing top-tier recruits is a major goal for any successful power conference program. Not only does it improve the product on the field—better players theoretically improve a team's overall talent level—but it offers a tangible gauge for how high school players perceive your program in relativity to other top programs bidding for their services. If a general pattern is created whereby a certain team reigns in top recruits and keeps them away from rival schools, the simple conclusion is that the former offers the preferable all-around package—academics, location, facilities, coaching staff, competitive success and whatever else goes into recruiting decisions. What’s more, seeing four and five-star talent give verbal commitments gives the fans something to excite themselves over and provides hope for the future. The difficult part about recruiting—the part that requires hours of first-hand scouting, tape-watching and background research—is finding overlooked players that fit your program’s talent level, needs and goals, those unheralded guys for whom star rankings and scouting reports severely underrate actual, real-life performance. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has made it clear over the years that he could care less about star rankings, an approach—trusting his and his assistants’ eyes more than scouting reports from general recruiting services—that has in recent years helped Northwestern land lightly-recruited players who greatly exceed expectations once they arrive on campus.
Failure rates are typically low with these lowly-ranked players, because coaches uses their eyes, rather than someone else’s, to judge whether a player can compete in a productive and beneficial way within the confines of their programs. I’m not sure if Dwight White Jr. falls into this category, but his recruitment path is somewhat puzzling given his impressive overall package. White Jr. played safety throughout his four-year career at Cy-Fair (TX) and received all-district recognition. He drew interest from Baylor, Houston, Louisiana Tech, Rice and Tulsa, but only received one offer: Southeastern Louisiana. Judging by the list, White Jr. clearly blipped the radar of local power conference schools, but none were willing to extend an offer. One explanation is that White Jr., who stands at 5-10, 178 pounds, was undersized for safety, his high school position. Of course, those schools never saw White Jr. play cornerback, the position he will play at Northwestern. NU was the first FBS school to see him in person, at their one-day minicamp last June, and after an impressive workout at cornerback, White Jr. had his first offer.
While White Jr. enjoyed a successful high school career playing safety, the switch affords him a more immediate path to significant playing time in college. His bodily dimensions are a better fit for the cornerback position, and there’s little doubt he can make the switch, given his impressive athleticism and ball skills. There’s good reason to believe that, along with locking down receivers, he can be effective in stopping the run. He compiled 122 tackles during his junior year in highschool and flashed the grit and toughness needed to excel at the next level. He provides the physical playing style that plays well against the big, physical receivers in the Big Ten.
Had other teams observed White Jr. at cornerback, it’s likely he would have accumulated a greater number of offers. He is, by all accounts, a better fit at that position, and NU coaches were wise to encourage the switch once he arrived on campus for a workout. After making his commitment last July, White Jr. was at the forefront of a widespread cyber-bonding effort that helped unify the 2012 class before arriving on campus this summer. He reached out to his fellow pledges on facebook, and introduced his family to Fitzgerald in January when he visited nearby Houston for the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Whether White Jr. excels at NU remains to be seen, but his willingness to switch positions and his unmistakable enthusiasm portends a successful and productive career in Evanston.
Prospects for next season
When I asked senior outside linebacker David Nwabuisi last week about younger players capable of stepping up this season, one of the first names he mentioned was White Jr. That Nwabuisi, the unquestioned leader on defense for the Wildcats this season, was so quick to nominate White Jr. speaks to the positive impression he’s already made in his short time in Evanston. It would be premature to peg white Jr. for major playing time this season based on unorganized team workouts. Still, he has clearly acquited himself well with his peers, and even more importantly with Nwabuisi, who consults Fitzgerald regularly about the progress of younger players. The good news for White Jr. is that there is massive instability at his position, cornerback, heading into preseason camp, with redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose and Stanford transfer Quinn Evans, neither of whom have played but a single snap of Big Ten football, looking like the frontrunners for starting spots. The bad news is that if White Jr. plays this season, he will be joining a group short on experience, talent and depth, one widely expected to rank among the league’s worst in defending the pass this season.
Given White Jr.’s physical profile and great ball skills, he could fill in behind VanHoose or Evans as early as week 1. NU’s secondary remains mostly unresolved outside of Ibraheim Campbell, which presents an opportunity for players like White Jr., even as a true freshman, to make a strong case for playing time. If he outperforms competition in preseason camp, Fitzgerald would do well to insert him into the gameday rotation. From a pure game experience standpoint, White Jr. is just as battle tested as most of the players around him. VanHoose is yet to play his first game and Evans, though a fifth-year senior, played only sporadically at Stanford because of injuries. It’s rare that true freshmen can step in and thrive right away, particularly at cornerback, a position that requires elite physical talents and mental acuity. White Jr. may fit that profile, but he needs to prove as much in a definitive way at preseason camp.
The safer route for White Jr. is redshirting, learning the playbook, maturing physically, then making a strong push next season after a year taking in the college football experience. This is no doubt a safer option and it theoretically provides a greater likelihood for long term success. If White Jr. sits out this season, preserving his four years of eligibility, he can start anew in 2013, with four full seasons ahead of him. It’s up to Fitzgerald and staff to determine whether the potential benefits of White Jr. playing this season—shoring up the secondary, adding dynamic playmaking ability to a defensive backfield desperately short on it—outweighs the important growth and development of a redshirt season. It may ultimately come down to the collective performances of VanHoose, Evans, Daniel Jones, Demtrius Dugar and the other cornerbacks throughout the season. If the cornerbacks, as expected, take a beating early in the season, White Jr. may find himself grappling with Big Ten receivers quite a bit earlier than he might have expected when he agreed to join the Wildcats. The dilemma: throw him into the fire or save him for next season.
What he’s saying
“I’m really happy,” said Dwight White Jr. upon committing to the Wildcats last July. “I think I made the best decision for myself. There’s not really another place I’d rather be.”
What they’re saying
“Pat Fitzgerald returned to the Lone Star State to find another under-the-radar prospect in Dwight White,” said Chris Emma, managing editor of PurpleWildcats.com (Northwestern Scout/FoxSports Next) “The cornerback wasn't highly recruited by made an impression on the coaches. White's best days on the field are very likely ahead of him; he's likely to take a redshirt for this upcoming season.”