Mike White faces major test against the Illinois defense

Published: Sep. 5, 2017 at 7:36 PM CDT
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The buzz for Mike White as a potential 2018 NFL Draft pick grows louder by the day. That buzz can become a boom Saturday night.

A substantial opportunity for White to prove himself awaits at 7 p.m. Saturday inside Memorial Stadium on the campus of Illinois. He’ll have the chance to perform against a major conference team for just the fifth time in his career and just the third time as Western Kentucky’s quarterback.

“No try not to put too much pressure (on it),” White said Tuesday. “You just wanna go up there – I don’t care if I throw for one yard and we win. That’s really all I care about, is going 2-0 and getting that first Big Ten win.”

White (6-4, 225) faced two Power 5 conference opponents in 2016, his first year as WKU’s starter after sitting out 2015 due to his transfer from South Florida. He was a combined 32 of 62 (51.6 percent) for 357 yards with two interceptions against Vanderbilt and Alabama. His lone TD pass came from eight yards out in overtime against Vanderbilt.

Illinois will hope he can't improve on those numbers Saturday.

“When you’re playing bump-and-run, man-to-man, those windows get a little smaller,” White said about facing Illinois’ defense. “You can’t really sit in the zone too much, so you gotta hit your receivers in stride so they’re able to run with the ball. You gotta put the ball where you want it and protect the ball.

“You just kinda focus a little more. Not that you don’t focus on every game, but it’s one of our goals. We set out to beat one Power 5 team a year and this is our first chance. I think it’s gonna be a tough one. I don’t think it’s gonna be easy. I think we’re gonna have to go in there, do a lot of things right, make a lot of plays, take care of the ball. If we go in there and do what we’re capable of, I think we’ll be OK.”

The challenge for White on Saturday is trying to figure out a way to dissect Lovie Smith’s and Hardy Nickerson’s defense. Smith coached Chicago in the NFL from 2004-12 and led the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006 and to the NFL championship game in 2010.

Nickerson, a former linebacker, played 16 seasons in the NFL and has held coaching positions with the Bears, Tampa Bay and San Francisco.

“Defensively they run an NFL structure. They’re an NFL defense,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “Gonna play a lot of Cover 2 Tampa, Cover 1, man-to-man coverage, and then they’re gonna play some Cover 3. So they’ll mix up their coverages, very NFL-type, sound defensive structure with some good changeups and some really good intellect that goes into the design of it.

“It’s gonna be great for Mike White. Mike White’s a guy that certainly aspires to, and rightfully so, play in the National Football League. He’s gonna play against an NFL – schematically – defense."

Counting his time at USF, White goes into Saturday with career marks of 44-for-97 (45.4) for 612 yards, two touchdowns and three picks against major conference opponents. But one would certainly argue he’s a much different quarterback now than he was in those four games prior. ranks White as the No. 8 senior in the ’18 draft class. named White on of 11 quarterbacks to watch this year, noting, “his ability to alternate between his fastball and throwing with nice touch on vertical throws has scouts excited. White completed (in 2016) a staggering 57 percent of his attempts of 20 yards-plus.”

The Sporting News recently projected White to be the No. 25 overall pick this spring. ProFootballFocus had this to say:

White enters the 2017 college season as a Day 2 projection and among the top quarterbacks in the preseason PFF NFL draft guide. White ended the 2016 season with a passing grade of 85.5, the fourth highest grade among 130 qualifying quarterbacks, and his overall grade of 85.7 ranked 10th of 150 quarterbacks. He has shown composure and patience in the pocket and has the ability to make plays while facing pressure. In 2016, he earned a passer rating of 107.4 when he was under duress, the third highest mark in college football. He showed good accuracy last season as his adjusted completion percentage of 78.2 percent ranked third among 87 quarterbacks with at least 350 drop backs. His accuracy translated downfield as well, as he earned the highest adjusted accuracy percentage (60.5 percent) on throws of 20 or more yards. His passer rating of 122.3 on deep throws was the third highest in college football.

Saturday’s game will be the first of just two chances – unless the Hilltoppers (1-0) face a Power 5 team in a bowl game – for White to play against top-level competition. Western travels to Vanderbilt on Nov. 4.

“First off, (White’s) a good quarterback,” Smith said Tuesday. “Can make all the throws. I wouldn’t say that he’s a running quarterback, but he’s mobile enough in the pocket to be able to buy time to throw the football. He can make all the throws – accurate, strong arm, knows football.

“As far as I’m going to the next level, I just know that he’s a very good college quarterback and most very good college quarterbacks have a chance to play on the next level. It’ll be a challenge for our group this week.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop

Mike White on the challenges of facing Illinois

Posted by Chad Bishop on Tuesday, September 5, 2017