Every college football season serves as a showcase for NFL teams looking for the next big-impact player. Some prospects are considered known quantities for years, but others benefit from having a breakout season. The biggest riser in the 2015 class is West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White.
There are recent examples of breakout collegiate stars having early success in the NFL. In the last two draft classes, St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Greg Robinson and Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah are prime cases of high draft picks with little college experience who have played well.
As many franchises search for dominant playmaking talent, it was only a matter of time before White would win over NFL scouts. At 6’3” and 210 pounds, he is a physically imposing presence on the field. White’s talent has led to many football evaluators giving him high praise and grading him as one of the best prospects in the 2015 draft.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller projected White to the Oakland Raiders with the fourth overall pick in his latest mock draft. NFL.com’s Mike Mayock ranks him as the top receiver. ESPN.com draft guru Mel Kiper also thinks highly of White, mocking him to the Minnesota Vikings with the 11th overall pick.
But how has White risen so quickly in the last eight months? We’re going to dive into his resume and see where he wins and how his skill set will translate to the NFL.
Winning at the Catch Point
As athletes continue to get bigger, faster and stronger, the minute details distinguish what transforms a good player into a special one. Of the most coveted traits, being able to win at the catch point is the most important. Speed is nice, but if the receiver can’t complete the catch, that player is essentially just a track runner defenses won’t have to worry about.
Defenders can only do so much against receivers who are able to snatch the ball at its highest point. Great hands earn the trust of the quarterback, and once chemistry is established between the two, defenses are at their mercy. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah selected White as his "top WR" and compares him to the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones:
I love Parker, Cooper & DGB on tape but West Virginia's Kevin White is my top WR. He has the same traits as Julio Jones.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 7, 2015
White has been compared to receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald and Jones because of his ability to win while being draped in coverage. It’s easy to see why when watching his film and tracking his record at the catch point. Instead of 50-50 balls, passing to White in a jump-ball scenario is more like a 70-30 proposition.
In eight games charted, I found White to have either brought down the reception or drawn a defensive pass interference penalty on nearly 67 percent of all chances. Using his size, natural tracking ability and soft hands, White is a backbreaking playmaker when he has the opportunity.
One of the most difficult plays to finish as a receiver is to go over the top on a cornerback at the right time and pluck the ball out of the air. It requires great vision and understanding of where he is on the field and at what point the ball is going to be catchable. Finishing the play takes focus, toughness and hand strength. Finding a combination of those skills together on a consistent basis is a tough task.
That’s what makes White special and comparable to the likes of other top receiving options currently in the NFL. No matter the down or situation, these are game-breakers who force the defense to commit a safety over the top to protect against big plays. If defenses neglect White, he’s able to make teams pay.
In one-on-one situations, it’s very difficult to slow down White’s ascent to the ball. He tracks it mid-air and is able to contort his body however is needed to at least make a play on the pass.
It’s hard to find many defenses and cornerbacks capable of effectively applying press coverage to start with. Then factor in the variety of spread offenses in the Big 12 and how West Virginia lines its receivers up, and White’s ability to handle press must be a concern.
Luckily for evaluators, White has great versatility in case he needs time to improve his ability to break press coverage. He split snaps as an outside and inside receiver at West Virginia and was excellent at both. By lining up in the slot, he is less likely to be on the line of scrimmage and able to avoid press.
On the play above, White is on the line of scrimmage, but he's not facing press. Nonetheless, he uses his feet to get the cornerback to hesitate. White then uses his acceleration to get on even footing with the cornerback, and it becomes about pure speed and positioning. He separates as he tracks the ball and finishes the catch.
With the experience of running various routes from different launch points on the field, White isn’t limited to one role. He only has two years of experience at the Division I level, so there is some rawness to his game, but his comfort in different receiver positions will help him.
The most underrated part of White’s game is his ability to outrun defenders. His acceleration at the top of his route is highly effective and helps him pull away to create separation. He may not run the best 40-yard dash, but his quickness and ability to get up to that top speed is a valuable trait.
White’s ability to give his quarterback a bigger passing window on go routes and comebacks is vital for his success. With more spread quarterbacks entering the NFL, many tend to want that extra space, as if they’re unwilling to force tight throws, even if the receiver is effective at contested catches.
In the screenshot below, see how much space White creates on a comeback route. The cornerback must consider White’s ability to cause havoc in the red zone, and it gives him a little more room to work with. However, White’s quick feet and transition back to the ball was the bigger reason for the underneath separation and big target for the quarterback.
The ability to sink his hips and cut back with efficient feet is what puts distance between White and lower-tier receivers in the draft class. He isn’t athletically limited in the sense that he’s only proficient running deep routes like Ohio State’s Devin Smith or Auburn’s Sammie Coates.
Looking at White’s playing style and physical profile, he’s a very solid prospect who definitely fits in with what the NFL looks for. White doesn’t have the elite level of athleticism that past top receivers such as Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant possessed, but he can become a quality No. 1 option on a championship-caliber team.
As White improves his ability to break through press coverage and refine his routes, he will only increase his value to an offense. Defensive coordinators will need to make note of his alignment on every play and adjust to his presence even before White improves the nuances of his game.