Harry King is a columnist for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, he has covered sports in Arkansas since the 1960s, including 35 years for the Associated Press. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy, has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year seven times and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
For White, opportunity meets legacy in Fayetteville
Pulaski Academy receiver John David White runs after catching a pass during a game against Springdale Har-Ber on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, in Springdale.
LITTLE ROCK Sight unseen, a cohort in Fayetteville likened John David White to Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and a Little Rock-based witness to White’s skills countered with New England’s Julian Edleman.
Comparing Arkansas’ preferred walk-on from Pulaski Academy to Burlsworth Award winner Renfrow and Super Bowl MVP Edelman is nothing more than words of praise, but White has superb hands, can run and will compete like the dickens — all attributes coveted in a wide receiver.
The decision to accept Arkansas’ offer came down to paying to pursue a dream vs. accepting a free ride at school with lesser football.
Opting for Fayetteville was “a gut-wrenching, soul-searching process that required many family meetings,” David White said of the back and forth with his son. “I told John David from the get-go that, with five kids to put through college, if he gets an offer to have his school paid for and play the game he loves, he is going to take it. So, honestly, despite my love of the Razorbacks, I urged him over and over to take a scholarship offer at UCA, OBU or Air Force.”
An hourlong sitdown in January with head coach Chad Morris, offensive coordinator Joe Craddock and wide receivers coach Justin Stepp eased the parents’ concern about treatment of walk-ons, and, ultimately, White and wife Amy “decided we would sacrifice whatever is necessary to allow him to take this path …”
Partly because John David is aware of the success of other under-sized wide receivers like Renfrow, Edelman, Wes Welker, Drew Morgan, Trey Quinn, Cole Beasley, and the like; he has “stars in his eyes,” his dad said.
“At the very end of this recruiting process, he told Amy and me he just has to try and play at the Power Five, D-I level,” White said. “He is taking the hardest road possible and knows it, but he truly believes he is the best player on the field in every game …”
And, as an All-American Razorback golfer, David White knows about the importance of self-confidence.
For months before the meeting with Morris, Craddock and Stepp, John David was communicating with UA assistant Barry Lunney, and it was the tight ends coach who texted him in October to let him know Arkansas was offering the PWO.
“When I read the text I froze because I was so excited to have the opportunity to play at my dream school,” John David said. “I basically thanked him for giving me a chance to continue my football career there and told him that he would not be sorry.”
During the January confab, he said, Morris, Craddock and Stepp “assured me I am good enough to play at this level and let me know I needed to seize the opportunity to be a Hog.”
A couple of days later, after discussions with his mom and dad, John David said, “… it became really clear that Arkansas is where I should land.”
Last year, he caught 86 passes for the team that lost in the finals in its bid for a fifth straight state championship, and production from those receptions is off the charts — 30 touchdowns and slightly more than 20 yards per catch.
“I would put him against anyone in the state as far as percentage of balls he caught that were deemed catchable,” PA coach Kevin Kelley said.
Maybe that goes back to the hundreds of hours that John David, his two grandfathers and other family members played catch, trying for what his dad calls “top 10ers” — circus catches in football and web gems in baseball worthy of a SportsCenter Top 10 nomination.
“John David understands the game, our system and route running. Put that together with some God-given ability, an awesome attitude and crazy hard work, and you get an outstanding player,” Kelley said.
“He has always truly tried to finish first in every drill, always. Very few do that. He never ever complained, no matter what he was asked to do. He always has done even more afterward.”
Aware of the comparisons to Edelman, Kelley says White has more breakaway speed for his level than the Patriots’ receiver, but that Edelman is better at his level on quick, inside routes at this point.
Both Kelley and White recognize the influence of PA assistant and former Arkansas wide receiver Anthony Lucas.
“He really helps our receivers with the finer details of route running and is big on getting them to run after catch,” Kelley said. “He has them believing they should always ‘go score’ as he says.”
A receiver since he was 5 except for the rare occasion when coach/dad put him at quarterback to run a trick play, John David said Lucas “turned me into a very good high school receiver, simple as that."
“He taught me how to execute various releases based on where the corners, backers and safeties lined up, as well as different ways to run routes to get open,” White said. “He also emphasized blocking a whole lot, and by the end of my senior season, that became a real point of pride for me. He really emphasized how blocking for my teammates demonstrates unselfishness to interested colleges.
“And, most important, in film study he would rail on me if I missed a block or any assignment. I could catch a ball and run wild, but if my route was trash, it didn’t garner any positive reaction — quite the contrary.
“Coach also stressed the importance of your mental approach, how you can’t get down on yourself, how you need to maintain mental discipline to line up the very next play and do better.”
Articulate and willing to answer any question, John David was asked about how Kelley’s offense might help him prepare for Morris’ approach.
“Coach Kelley’s offense hinges on option routes, and he is thorough in teaching us what to look for, because in option routes, you have to make snap decisions on the fly to get open,” he said, labeling Edleman a “master at that.”
He also said the Morris/Craddock offense at SMU “seemed to stress the option routes, the jerk routes, the quick ins and outs.” But, he added, he isn’t taking anything for granted, and that he is anxious to get to Fayetteville and understand offensive tendencies.
“I hope they will incorporate that style into the Razorback approach, but regardless of style and play calling, I will figure out a way to get open,” he said, matter-of-factly reinforcing his dad’s take on self-confidence. “That is the key to the kingdom for receivers, getting open. That and catching the ball. … My standard is to catch every ball and make the quarterback feel secure.”
In high school, White might line up most anywhere, and Kelley even used him on defense on key downs in big games.
“He loved all of it,” Kelley said.
The coach allows players to make suggestions, and White took advantage.
“The part a coach loves is that he would suggest sometimes for him and sometimes for others that he thought would be open,” Kelley said.
He believes White could contribute early. “He will block, get open, be a decoy and will do it all harder than anyone else,” Kelley said.
Even though White mentioned Arkansas’ facilities, the schedule and the academic assistance at Arkansas, legacy also played a role in his decision.
Grandfather John Rees was an Arkansas receiver in 1968-70, and John Aaron Rees followed his dad 25 years later.
“My Papa Rees has told me so many stories about his years at Arkansas, and how much the university means to him to this day,” John David said. “He showed me articles and pictures of him playing for the Hogs, and ever since I could remember, I wanted to follow in his steps and be a big-time receiver.”
Vividly, he recalls getting the autographs of his uncle John Aaron, Marcus Monk and Weston Dacus, and being “spellbound by everything about that.”
“I hope to make kids’ days by signing autographs after we win games, just like happened for me many times at War Memorial and Razorback Stadium,” he said.
This article originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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