Gameday: Oft-criticized Dwight White keeps his head up as playing time goes down

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

Why does Northwestern’s most maligned player keep smiling?

Dwight White, bag of ice in hand and two bananas in pocket, must have better things to do than stand in the cold outdoor air and chat about his tumultuous 2013 season and diminished place on the depth chart. But the redshirt freshman converses cheerily, if not thrilled to be interviewed, then at least willing.

He wouldn’t be faulted for some grouchiness. White’s career certainly hasn’t started as he would have dreamed. Entering the season, the cornerback operated under the assumption he’d be used primarily as a special teamer, playing defense only in occasional nickel and dime packages.

Then came the Wildcats’ opener against California and a dramatic change of fate. Starting cornerback Daniel Jones injured his knee late in the first half, and White entered to replace him. Two days later coach Pat Fitzgerald announced Jones was done for the season, and with one game of collegiate experience, White was a starter.

With sturdy sophomore Nick VanHoose as NU’s starter on the other side, opposing quarterbacks picked on White relentlessly, and the redshirt freshman ceded big play after big play. He was beat for a 52-yard touchdown against Cal, a 75-yard score against Western Michigan and a 59-yard bomb against Maine, to name the most noteworthy slip-ups.

“As a young guy I went through some things that young guys do go through sometimes,” White said this week. “I was tested, had some challenges, but for the most part I thought I was handling myself well.”

Eventually, competition heated up, and freshman Matthew Harris began to steal playing time from White. When White allowed yet another big-play touchdown to Minnesota, he was replaced by Harris, who started a week later and tops him on the depth chart entering Saturday’s game at Nebraska.

Throughout the difficulties, White was cursed by fans and called out by media members, who cheered when he was finally usurped.

There hasn’t been much to celebrate for the young corner, but losing the starting job hasn’t killed his spirits.

“Of course it’s unfortunate,” he said. “But I’m still going to work hard. I’m still going to do what I have to do, make sure I’m supporting my teammates.”

Though his answer seems to echo what most players in his position would say, White’s demeanor suggests he means it — and so do testimonials from those around him, who report he hasn’t gotten down on himself.

“He’s been all right,” sophomore safety Traveon Henry said. “He understands what’s going on. He’s been working. He’s doing what he can. Unfortunately the situation didn’t go his way, but he’s still keeping his head on straight.”

Likewise, Fitzgerald said he’s not worried about White’s psyche. It’s all part of the gig, a healthy competition that comes with being part of a team.

“I don’t see any wavering in Dwight’s confidence,” the coach said. “If you’re not ready to compete, you shouldn’t be here. Those other two guys right now are our starters for a reason. They’ve won the competition.”

It would be understandable if White resented his adversary. Harris is a year younger, playing for a coach who typically employs true freshmen only in case of emergency. Now, Harris is not only starting over White but also being touted as a future star by the same observers who viewed White as a disappointment.

But White has been a gracious loser, saying all the right things about his attitude toward Harris. Harris and White describe themselves as friends, with White calling his teammate “a real cool dude.” Meanwhile, Harris gives his elder a ringing endorsement.

“He’s been a great teammate to me throughout this process,” Harris said. “He’s been kind of an inspiration for me because he really helps me out on the field and off the field right when I stepped in the door.”

It’s fortunate that White is good-natured about his current situation and the competition with Harris because it won’t be settled anytime soon. VanHoose has two more years of eligibility after this one and won’t lose his starting spot without injury. Jones, who beat out White for the starting spot in the fall, will be back next year to give his junior year another go.

White vs. Harris could be NU’s most engaging position battle for a long time. And White seems resigned to, even inviting of that reality.

“Hopefully we’re both pushing each other, making each other better,” White said. “We’re going to be in competition probably for the next four years. That’s just the way it’s gonna be.”

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