When Alabama played West Virginia on the first Saturday of the college football season, it was already widely expected that one of the wide receivers in that game—Crimson Tide junior Amari Cooper—would be in contention to be the top pass-catcher selected in the 2015 NFL draft. It wasn’t yet known that a wideout for the other team, Mountaineers senior Kevin White, could end up being Cooper’s top competition.
Look back at the preseason NFL draft big boards of Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required), Todd McShay (subscription) or Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller, and Kevin White is nowhere to be found. With only 35 receptions for 507 yards and five touchdowns in his first season at West Virginia, the Lackawanna College transfer simply didn’t do enough as a junior to legitimize himself as an NFL prospect.
This year, he started making a name for himself right away when he caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in the season-opening loss to Alabama.
It’s since become increasingly clear by the week that White, who has at least 10 receptions and/or 132 receiving yards in each of his first seven games this year, is one of the top draft-eligible talents in college football.
White leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,020 receiving yards and is second in the nation with 69 receptions, seven-game numbers close to exactly double his 11-game numbers from 2013.
Statistical excellence doesn’t make one a great NFL prospect, but the tools that have enabled White to achieve consistently high production do. While the increases in his numbers are partially tied to the development of WVU quarterback Clint Trickett, his current status as the best receiver in college football has more to do with his own improvement into a near-complete wideout.
Size, Strength and Ball Skills Make White a Tough Matchup
Listed at 6’3”, 210 pounds by West Virginia’s official athletics website, White has archetypical size for an outside wide receiver. More importantly, White combines his size with strength and knows how to exploit his physical advantages to win at the catch point against defensive backs.
Perhaps the biggest key to White’s ability to rattle off one outstanding performance after another this season has been his ability to make plays even when he is covered. He consistently attacks the ball in the air, even when he has to work through the contact of defensive backs, and he naturally high-points the football.
White’s first touchdown of the year, a 19-yard score in the Alabama game, exemplified White’s ability to make a play against coverage on the outside.
Alabama cornerback Bradley Sylve had tight coverage on White throughout the play, but that didn’t stop the Mountaineers receiver from adjusting back to the ball, making a leaping grab up above Sylve’s head and securing the ball on his way down for six points.
Another impressive display of White’s ability to make an adjustment to the ball and bring in a reception came on the following play against Maryland—deep down the middle against two defensive backs this time—for a 42-yard gain.
Any issues White had with drops in his junior season have seemingly disappeared in 2014, and his ball skills are evident in the way he is able to pluck passes out of the air away from his body.
The most exemplary display of White’s ball skills yet occurred this past Saturday, in WVU’s upset win over Baylor, when White extended his outside arm out away from Bears cornerback Xavien Howard and needed only one hand to pull in a pass for a 12-yard touchdown.
White’s ability to make tough catches against coverages will be his calling card to success in the NFL. He’s not likely to blow anyone away with his 40-yard dash time in predraft testing, and he could have some issues running free and separating from defensive backs in the NFL.
That said, White appears to have more than enough athleticism for a receiver of his size and skill.
When White is able to get a free release off the line of scrimmage, like he did in beating Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez for a 68-yard touchdown earlier this season, he has enough speed to finish the play after a downfield catch.
A natural strider and fluid open-field runner for a receiver of his size, White’s most impressive of display so far this season came against Maryland, when he turned a tunnel screen into a 44-yard touchdown with his acceleration in space and a well-timed lane change to the outside.
White’s not going to win many one-on-one foot-races against NFL cornerbacks, and he doesn’t frequently make defenders miss in the open field, but he consistently gains extra yardage on plays by fighting through low tackles and falling forward at the end of runs.
The key to covering White as a defender is to keep oneself in front of the receiver, but his ability to play the ball and battle through contact makes him a tough player to stop in any position.
White’s statistics become even more impressive when you consider how often he has drawn defensive pass interference this year, including five times against Baylor alone. And as he showed on the one-handed touchdown grab above and the following 35-yard play against Maryland, he is still sometimes able to come down with a reception even when a defender resorts to illegal coverage practices.
Doing the Little Things Well
White has always had the physical potential to be great. In 2012, Lackawanna College coach Mark Duda classified White as “one of the best athletes we’ve ever coached here,” a statement far from hollow as Duda has developed more than 300 Division I football players, including numerous NFL players, according to Allan Taylor of West Virginia MetroNews.
What has enabled White to elevate his game to a new stratosphere this year, and should posit him to continue to succeed in the NFL, is his development in the finer aspects of the game.
One area in which White has clearly improved this year has been his route running. As good as White has looked making plays on the ball on deep fades, he’s also impressed making catches on comebacks, curls and slants in the short and intermediate passing games.
As the players around him become faster at the next level, route-running prowess will be crucial to White’s ability to get open for high-percentage throws. The rapid progression he has displayed in this area is a promising sign that he can continue to develop as he becomes asked to diversify his routes with more frequency in the NFL.
White’s high level of effort in attempting to make catches has been clear to see this season, and his effort away from the ball has also been impressive.
Although he has incurred multiple holding penalties in the process, his impact as a perimeter run-blocker on the WVU offense has been largely positive. He’s been able to use his size to effectively create separation between runners and defenders, like he did on the following play against Maryland to spring Mountaineers running back Rushel Shell to a 22-yard gain.
Any lingering weaknesses that White has will be quickly exposed by NFL defenses, but he’s been able to consistently mask his flaws so far as a senior.
Cooper vs. White: Who’s the Better Prospect?
There’s no clear answer to that question, so the matter of which receiver is drafted first, assuming Cooper declares for the draft after his junior season, could come down to the preference of whichever team decides to be the first to pick a pass-catcher.
Cooper, who was headlined as the draft class’ top receiver prospect while White was still in the process of rising to prominence, has so far done exactly what he needed to do in his third season at Alabama to prove himself worthy of a top-10 pick.
A crisp route-runner who glides in the open field, Cooper has been catching the ball consistently this year and making big plays. He ranks fourth nationally with 62 receptions and 908 receiving yards.
Cooper’s lateral quickness gives him the ability White does not have to create dynamic plays in the open field. While White’s route running has improved significantly, he isn’t able to make the sharp breaks to the ball that Cooper can.
While Cooper is listed at the same weight as White—210 pounds—he does not exhibit the strength that White does on the field, and he is also listed two inches shorter than White at 6’1”, according to Alabama’s official athletics website. Cooper should be able to gain separation from defensive backs with more regularity than White in the NFL, but White can create more mismatches and make more contested catches.
It’s not quite a slam dunk that Cooper and White will be the first two receivers selected in the 2015 draft. Louisville senior DeVante Parker, Arizona State junior Jaelen Strong and Michigan junior Devin Funchess (who is also being projected as a tight end) are among the players who can challenge the top two for draft position.
What does appear nearly certain at this point, barring an injury or off-field setback, is that Cooper and White should both be first-round draft choices, likely both within the top 20.
That’s not a future that many would have imagined for White just a couple months ago.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.