A year ago at this time, Melvin White was a starting cornerback for Louisiana-Lafayette, preparing for big games against South Alabama and Florida Atlantic.
Now White, an undrafted rookie free agent, has been thrust into the Carolina Panthers’ starting lineup and undoubtedly ranks as the most obscure starter on the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL. When TV analyst Jon Gruden called the Panthers’ secondary the “Legion of Whom” Monday night, White is the kind of player he had in mind.
But New England’s Tom Brady knew exactly who White was that night, and he targeted No. 23 relentlessly. White had the worst game of his brief professional career in a thrilling Panthers win, getting called for three critical penalties (one on a fourth-down incompletion, one on a third-and-10 on New England’s final drive). He also gave up a number of completions and missed a key tackle.
“It wasn’t a shocker,” White said. “I expected it. And although everything didn’t go my way, I’m not going to change the way I play because of it.”
The shaky performance earned White the second-worst grade among all NFL cornerbacks last week from the analysts at the Pro Football Focus website. Other quarterbacks – starting with Miami’s Ryan Tannehill on Sunday and continuing through two matchups with New Orleans’ Drew Brees in December – undoubtedly will test White as well.
“And I’m ready for that,” White said. “I’ve come so far already. I’m not about to back down.”
‘Whoa, hold on now’
White grew up just outside Houston in Freeport, Texas, where he mostly was a quarterback in a spread formation high school offense. He was recruited modestly but did get a scholarship offer from TCU, he said, and had a number of other large programs somewhat interested.
“Then come to find out I was academically ineligible,” White said. “And those scholarship chances all went away. Lafayette was the only D-1 school that stayed with me.”
There was a problem with that, though – the Ragin’ Cajuns recruited White with the idea of switching him to cornerback. They told him this from the beginning, and he wasn’t hot on the idea.
Recalled White: “I said, ‘DB?! Whoa, hold on now. Do you not know I haven’t played a lick of defense in my life? I’m mainly a quarterback. I’m shying away from hits. Now you’re wanting me to deliver hits?’”
But he wanted to play at the Division I level, and that was the only choice. So White went, sitting out his first year to get his grades up.
“That year kind of made me into what I am today,” White said. “Actually being away from football, a sport I had played since I was 7 years old? They say you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and they’re right. I couldn’t even work out with the team.
“Dang, I was like a normal student, you know what I’m saying?”
White uses that “you know what I’m saying” phrase a lot. Generally, you do know. He is expressive, funny and honest, with a quick smile and long arms that help him tip away balls from receivers.
White stayed five years at Louisiana-Lafayette, playing the last four as a safety and cornerback. He graduated, too. The school is known among Panthers fans as the alma mater of another undrafted Panther: quarterback Jake Delhomme. “Jake’s a big-time legend down there,” White said.
Then came the 2013 NFL draft. White thought he would be picked, but he had run a 4.6 40-yard dash at Pro Day and believes that’s why he wasn’t chosen. The Panthers signed White as an undrafted free agent, inviting him to training camp with no guarantees.
“When I got here, my mindset was, all I need is for someone to take a chance on me,” White said. “Just let me prove myself – you know what I’m saying?”
It helped that White was training-camp roommates with Robert Lester, a safety from Alabama who had a much more prestigious college pedigree than White but also was undrafted. The two pushed each other every day, and ultimately both made the team. Lester now plays a lot, too, and is tied for the Panthers team lead with three interceptions – including one on the controversial final play of the New England game.
White played sparingly at the beginning of the season and only on special teams, but a rash of injuries at cornerback gave him a lot of playing time in Carolina’s third game against the New York Giants. That still stands as his best game: he intercepted Eli Manning and also forced a fumble (recovered by Lester) in the Panthers’ 38-0 shutout.
By midseason, he had moved into the starting lineup. Until Monday night’s game, he had been a very solid player, and he still hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass all season.
“We know it was tough on him Monday,” said Captain Munnerlyn, the other starting cornerback for Carolina. “Tom Brady likes to pick on the rookie. That’s just something the league will do. You’ve just got to have amnesia – let it go and move on.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he likely will keep White in Sunday’s starting lineup but also will sometimes platoon him with Josh Thomas, who has had a good last couple of weeks of practice and has also started at times.
As for Monday night, Rivera said: “It wasn’t all Melvin. They did beat him a couple of times in man-to-man coverage, and both of those were instances of Melvin reaching and not moving his feet. He’s making young mistakes, technical mistakes that can be improved upon.
“He’s got to stop reaching and leaning and make sure he gets his hands on people, because he’s got great strength and plays very well with his hands. His hand-eye coordination is great. When he’s patient, uses correct technique and trusts himself, he’s pretty doggone good.”
White said he appreciated his teammates trying to encourage him Monday night, even after each of his penalties.
“There was no one on the team shaking their head and getting mad, you know what I’m saying?” White said. “Nobody pointed a finger. And so it made it so much easier to move on, knowing my teammates had my back and weren’t going to jump down my throat.”
So now comes his first chance to recover from a bad game, something all successful NFL players have to learn to do.
If he can do that, he may stick around for a long time.
You know what I’m saying?