Sept. 25, 2013
Ryan White has broken up five passes in Auburn's first four games (Anthony Hall photo)
AUBURN, Ala. - When Melvin Smith arrived last December to coach Auburn cornerbacks, he didn't know much about Ryan White. After all, White had spent more time holding for kicks than playing defense.
But four games into Gus Malzahn's first season as Auburn's head coach, White has been a mainstay at cornerback. Since Chris Davis went down with a leg injury late Arkansas State in the second game, White has played almost every snap.
And he's made Smith a believer.
"I am so proud of him," Smith said. "He has really embraced what we do. I talk about humbling yourself, governing your temper and being able to sponsor your own show. He's really done that. When he's had an opportunity, he's really sponsored himself in a favorable way. I'm really proud of him."
With no experience behind him, White played a significant role even before Davis was injured.
"It's been awesome," Smith said. "How do we beat Mississippi State if we don't have Ryan? How do we make the game competitive down at LSU if we don't have Ryan? How do we beat Washington State if we don't have Ryan?
"Ryan has played at least 30 snaps in every game, and he's played like a senior. He's been mature. He hasn't pouted. What you want, he's been."
White was a standout quarterback at Lincoln High School Tallahassee. He signed with Auburn with the promise of being given a chance to play quarterback. But there was another quarterback in his class. His name was Cam Newton. Midway through his first preseason camp, White moved to cornerback.
"It was definitely hard," White said. "Quarterback was my first love. That's all I had known, but seeing other guys that came in my class playing defense made me want to contribute right away."
White got some playing time for the 2010 national champions, playing in the last six games. In 2011, at the request of former head coach Gene Chizik, he learned to be a holder for kicks. He started two games at cornerback but played hardly at all on defense afterward. He's still holding for kicks this season.
Finally, as last season arrived, White thought his time had come. He won the starting job for the season-opener against Clemson and made seven tackles in Brian VanGorder's first game as defensive coordinator. He never started again and rarely played other than holding for kicks. He made just one tackle the rest of the season.
"Coming from playing quarterback when you were the star of the team and coming here and having to wait your turn can be the most frustrating thing in the world," White said.
Last season was mostly misery for White. His contribution was limited to holding for kicks, and he could only watch as the season fell apart.
"Guys were in it just for themselves," White said. "Guys were trying to show out and get their status up. It was the worst season I've been through in my whole football career. Ugly. Some of the longest games of my life.
"It was tragic for us and the Auburn nation. We definitely don't want to go back there."
This season has been very different. White has 18 tackles. He has broken up five passes and recovered a fumble. He's thrown a pass for a two-point conversion and run for a two-point conversion.
"It's been everything I've been waiting on, for real," White said. "I just try to take advantage of my opportunities when I get out there. This is my last season, and I want to go out with a bang."
The Tigers are 3-1 and coming off a 35-21 loss at LSU. They have an open date Saturday and play Ole Miss the following week.
White said he saw a willingness to fight to the end at LSU, but there was no satisfaction in the outcome.
"I think people believe and work extremely hard," White said. "We got pushed through winter workouts, through spring practice, through summer workouts. People saw growth. People have gotten stronger and faster. It's all about playing football right now.
"Everybody is still up. We thought we should have won the game. We think we can play with anybody right now."
White signed with Auburn because it was close to his mother, who lived in Atlanta, and his father, former Florida defensive back Will White, in Tallahassee. He played in the BCS National Championship Game and, two years later, went through the misery of a 3-9 season that resulted in a new coaching staff.
"I've seen it all here," White said. "I've seen the good times and bad times. I've seen people open doors for me and seen doors close. That's the way it is. People here love their football and they expect greatness. They shouldn't expect any less."
In the hard times, White has leaned on his father for support and for advice. The message has been consistent.
"My father is the one I talk to all the time," White said. "He told me to keep pushing and get through it. He told me bad times don't last. He told me, when I got my chance, not to give it up again."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: