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WKU FOOTBALL

WKU QB White took unlikely path to Hilltopper stardom

Redshirt senior grew up with pro baseball dreams

  • 7 min to read

Mike White’s plan wasn’t always to become a star quarterback.

“If you would’ve told me this five years ago, I would’ve said, ‘You’re nuts,’ ” White told the Daily News.

Years before White transferred to Western Kentucky and became one of the nation’s best QBs, he was a little kid in south Florida with dreams of making it big in baseball.

The Pembroke Pines, Fla., native was 2 years old when the nearby Florida Marlins made their run to win the 1997 World Series. Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Charles Johnson – White said his parents told him he could recite every player on the roster.

“That’s how big baseball was in my life,” White said.

It was at that age, not long after White learned to walk, that he started training to be a baseball player.

“When I was 2 years old my dad would bring me in the backyard and we had these plastic balls and he would write an ‘X’ or an ‘O’ on,” White said. “He would throw at me and I had to hit it, at 2, and tell him if it was an ‘X’ or an ‘O.’

“I don’t know how accurate I was, but I hit it.”

White, whose Florida family friends include MLB Hall of Famer Tony Perez, started playing travel baseball at 8 years old. The youngster’s life revolved around the bat and the ball.

White’s love of football didn’t come as naturally. He spent most of his high school career on the bench and didn’t take over until his senior year at University School.

White took to varsity action in 2012 and became Class 3A Florida Player of the Year. He hasn’t looked back since.

“It just took me a while to get to a starting position,” White said. “Once I got that taste of game action and throwing a touchdown and being out there with my guys, I just fell in love with it.

“That’s why I stuck with football, and here I am.”

Five years after starring on the prep fields in Florida, White goes into his redshirt senior season with WKU as a bona fide college star.

White got his first chance to play for the Hilltoppers in 2016, one year after arriving as a transfer from South Florida. He took over for Brandon Doughty, who rewrote WKU’s record books during a three-year run from 2013-15.

There wasn’t much dropoff.

White completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 311.6 yards per game with 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His stats would’ve been gaudier if he hadn’t sat out the second halves of several blowouts.

White piloted the Hilltoppers to an 11-3 record, a second straight C-USA title and a Boca Raton Bowl victory. He was named Conference USA Newcomer of the Year for his efforts.

Now White is looking for more as he begins his redshirt senior season with WKU. The Toppers open the 2017 campaign Saturday against Eastern Kentucky. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m., with the game streamed online at Flofootball.com.

Coach Mike Sanford, who was hired in December after Jeff Brohm left for Purdue, has raved about the 6-foot-4, 225-pound QB ever since taking the WKU job.

“The guy that’s behind center is going to set the tone for your football program and Mike has done an outstanding job of that,” Sanford said.

White’s rise to college football stardom hasn’t been without some trials and a few important decisions.

The first key decision was whether to go to college and play football or pursue a professional baseball career.

White certainly had the credentials to earn a spot on the professional diamond. He was named a Louisville Slugger All-American as a high school junior and was dominant as a pitcher.

White earned first-team All-Broward County honors from the Miami Herald as a pitcher, posting a 9-2 record with a 0.43 ERA.

“I think my biggest thing as a pitcher was I could put whatever I threw wherever I wanted,” White said. “I was a long guy, lanky guy. I threw about 90, 92, sat around there. But I was long so it got on you quick.

“Back when I pitched I was 180 pounds soaking wet. So maybe one day I’ll get out there and throw a fastball by a radar gun, see how fast I can throw now.”

White broke out on the football field as a senior, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,201 yards with 22 TDs against just two interceptions. He led University School to a 13-0 record and a Florida 3A state championship.

White was recruited by South Florida – and its new coach Willie Taggart – and Louisiana Tech, home to former USF coach Skip Holtz. WKU didn’t recruit the QB out of high school, he said.

After weighing the worth of potential contracts MLB teams would likely offer, White saw more value in the football scholarship from USF and chose to play football for the Bulls.

“I’ve still got a bunch of buddies in the minors going through that whole thing,” White said. “ … The camaraderie of football is a lot better than baseball. Obviously, the whole deal of a college football Saturday, it just can’t compare.”

White was an inexperienced quarterback when he got to USF. His high school didn’t have a junior varsity football team and he only started one year of varsity ball.

Taggart – the former WKU quarterback, offensive assistant and head coach – put the 18-year-old White out on the field as a true freshman. Things didn’t go well.

White played six games in 2013 as a freshman for the Bulls, throwing three touchdowns against nine interceptions.

“Going through the fire at 18 years old kind of makes a man out of you,” White said. “My first start as a freshman, 18 years old, was my 14th-ever football game.

“I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot from them. I think that’s what makes me the kind of player I am today. I’ve made all the necessary mistakes you’ve got to learn from and gain experience from.”

White improved somewhat as a sophomore in 2014, finishing with 1,639 yards, eight TDs and seven INTs. Taggart changed the offense the following offseason to a system that incorporated more quarterback running.

So White faced more decisions. Should he leave USF or stay? And if he left, where should he go?

“I knew I had two to play and a redshirt,” White said. “I knew if I wanted to transfer, this was my time because I would be the most attractive to schools. I could sit out a year and still have two more. That was the time I needed to make the jump. I talked to my parents and decided to do it.

“Coach Taggart was awesome about it. He helped me. He was really cool about it, got the paperwork through very quickly. I thank him for that. It worked out for the best.”

White looked around the college football landscape in the spring of 2015 for a new home. He spoke with Doughty, who’d become a friend as they worked out together during offseasons under private Miami-area QB coach Ken Mastrole.

Doughty told him to come check out WKU. Sure enough, White liked the campus, liked the town and liked coach Brohm’s system, so he became a Hilltopper.

White sat a year under Doughty in 2015, then won the job as a redshirt junior after battling another transfer, Tyler Ferguson.

White thrived in his first year as WKU’s starting quarterback. He led the country in passing completions of 30 yards (44) and 40 yards (24) or more, set a single-season school record for passer rating (181.39) and posted a 25-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio against C-USA opponents.

Doughty, now a Miami Dolphin, got to watch his friend White firsthand in December at the Boca Raton Bowl.

“The guy’s done an amazing job, man,” Doughty said. “He’s stepped up his game. He’s quickened that release. …

“Just seeing his development and seeing his growth on the field, off the field is pretty cool.”

Shortly after the bowl win, decision time struck yet again for White. This time the choice was whether to play his last season of college football at WKU or go somewhere as a graduate transfer.

The NCAA allows players who’ve completed their undergraduate degrees and have eligibility remaining to transfer to another Division I school and be immediately eligible – so long as they take part in a graduate program not offered by their last school.

WKU’s taken advantage of that rule across several sports in recent years including in football. Ferguson, linebacker Keith Brown and defensive lineman Nick Dawson-Brents all joined the Tops last year as grad transfers from Louisville and helped WKU win a C-USA title.

Now the possibility existed that the Hilltoppers might be burned by that rule, that their starting quarterback could leave before his final season.

Sanford had been through some similar situations at his last coaching stop, where he was offensive coordinator and QBs coach at Notre Dame. He didn’t want to start his tenure by losing his star quarterback.

“Now that we’re here in full transparency, I identified him as our No. 1 recruit in our football program,” Sanford said. “ … I knew Mike was going to be a hot commodity because he’s a great player. He’s already transferred and made a transition very, very smoothly from USF to Western Kentucky. Certainly people knew he could make that transition again.

“So it was very important for me to develop a relationship with him, very important for (quarterbacks coach) Steve Spurrier Jr. to develop a really strong relationship with him. But more importantly we wanted him to understand that the guys in the locker room that he loves so much, that those guys are truly depending on him. We want him to feel a responsibility to those guys.”

White weighed his options and decided to return to WKU for his last season of college football.

“I like what we started and I want to finish,” White said. “I want to see it through. I love the guys I play for and the guys I play with. I wouldn’t want to see myself finish my career anywhere else.”

White’s return has kept the expectations around WKU football high, even after a coaching change and the graduations of program legends Forrest Lamp and Taywan Taylor.

The Hilltoppers were picked to win the C-USA East Division, and White was voted this summer as the C-USA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

The quarterback has been named to watch lists for a variety of postseason awards, including the Walter Camp, Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Trophies.

Waiting at the end of the 2017 season will be the NFL Draft. White can join 2016 seventh-round pick Doughty as the only WKU quarterbacks to be drafted in this century.

Sanford’s coaching stops have allowed him to work with a handful of future NFL QBs. His most recent draft pick is former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, a second-round selection who’ll start this year for the Cleveland Browns.

Sanford compared White’s football intellect to Kizer’s. The WKU coach and former Boise State QB also praised White’s accuracy, which he said doesn’t come as easy for tall, long-armed throwers.

Sanford joked that, “I wish my golf game was more like Mike White’s throwing arm,” because of his accuracy.

“He’s got incredible potential to be a legitimate top-flight quarterback,” Sanford said. “I really believe that. It’s really about what he does this year.

“The most important thing you can do as a quarterback is play your best ball leading up to that opportunity to be evaluated for the next level. So this is a huge year for him. As you know with Mike, he’s got the right demeanor to handle that pressure.”

White’s looking forward to the NFL Draft and a potential pro football career, but said his focus the next four months is on finishing his Hilltopper career strong.

A 2017 C-USA title run would be another accomplishment that seemed unlikely five years ago, when White wanted to be a pro baseball player, or more recently, when the QB left USF in search of a new home.

“I’m really excited for what we have to come,” White said. “A three-peat (as C-USA champions) would be awesome for the school, for the university and give even more attention to it, because it’s a great place.”{&end}

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Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.