Georgia Tech's Keion White defying 'dumb football trope' as he prepares for NFL Draft

Staring at the sawdust covering his two-room apartment, Keion White was, as is often said in both the football and DIY worlds, trusting the process.

He'd bought a dresser second-hand off Facebook Marketplace for $15, and was sanding it down and refinishing it. 

And no, White had never done something like that before.

He really likes to try new things.

"I always want to learn how to do new things and everything like that," he told FOX 5 Sports recently. "I kind of felt like that was like such a dull process of building something off of an old and making it new."

Whether it's a day pondering exhibitions at the High Museum of Art, fiddling with plaster art, crafting homemade candles, or hiking in Georgia or his native North Carolina, White describes himself as "not a guy that plays video games all day every day. I want to get out of the house and try new activities."

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Trying new things is something he's done a handful of times in his football career as well – and in some ways, it's what's led him to be a projected first-round pick in April's NFL Draft, as he could become the first Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket to be taken in more than a decade.

"This is a dope experience," White said of what that would mean to him. "You're still going to work after that, but you got to enjoy the moment and realize what you did because I've been the guy that didn't even expect to go to college and make it into the draft, let alone first round, second round, third round, any round. So that's a dope experience for me."

But the story of his football journey really started at center.

"Yeah, it's actually a funny story. So like, nobody wants to play center and so it was summer workouts one summer, like going into my junior year (at Garner High School)," White recalled. "Our center was just messing up all practice. And I'm a big trash talker. I was like, ‘You’re sucking.' And then the his coach got mad at me. He was like, ‘If you think you’re so good, like you do it.' I'm never one to back down, so I went out and did it. And it just so happened I could actually play. So that's how I ended up playing center."

The next part of that story was his transition to tight end and defensive end during his senior year in 2017, when he was rated a two-star prospect and received five football scholarships: Virginia State, North Carolina A&T, Norfolk State, Elon and Old Dominion, which is where his college career started.

And if the Monarchs hadn’t lost a defensive end his second season, White might still be playing tight end.

"There was a spot that needed to be filled, and my coaches were saying, 'Hey, we want you to play defensive end. We know you're our starting tight end, but if you suck, it is what it is or just go back. But I ended up being really good at it."

That seems like a theme.

Fast forward to 2020, when Old Dominion canceled its football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and White entered the transfer portal looking for a new opportunity to play. 

Because he had only been playing defensive end for one season at Old Dominion, White sought a landing spot that could help him stay in that role and grow, rather than trying out something new yet again.

"(Georgia Tech's) were the only coaches that told me I sucked, and I kind of respond to that well," he said, laughing. "So they were like, 'Yeah, you're good and everything like that. But these are things you suck at.' I feel like any coach can tell you what you're good at, like anybody can just Google some stats and go, 'Hey, you're good at this.' But a person who really cares about you will tell you like, ‘OK, you need to improve here.’ And a good coach will have those hard conversations."

Tech's staff also stood by him when he broke his ankle heading into that first year as a Yellow Jacket, which meant a lot to him.

Breaking his ankle was also an opportunity to try out a different approach to the same position.

"I learned how to be more technical when I play football for sure, and just play better with my hands, play better technique," White recalled. "But because I wasn't as explosive or as athletic as I was prior to my injury, it caused me to play better football. That was year one (at Georgia Tech). Year two was just myself getting back out there, being dominant again. And so while I was playing football, I would go through with coach and just hand placement and technique and put a big focus on that. And that's kind of what I put a more focus on when I got to the next level."

And all 32 teams are taking notes on White, who just wrapped up showcasing himself to the NFL at the Senior Bowl.

MOBILE, AL - FEBRUARY 01: National defensive lineman Keion White of Georgia Tech (6) during the Reese's Senior Bowl National team practice session on February 1, 2023 at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswi

But he was a little surprised to realize that these NFL folks are just people, too.

"Just how cool the guys are, like the coaches and the head coaches," he said. "Because you see them on TV. You see like the NFL players. Like, I'm training with guys now and just they're super talented. I feel like a lot of people think they're uptight and cool and everything like that. But… we're just normal people."

And just being his normal self has been White's biggest priority throughout this NFL Draft preparation process. In every interview, he wants one thing to ring true to NFL teams about who Keion White is: "The dumb football trope is definitely a thing of the past."

And yet his measurables are anything but normal: 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, 32-inch vertical jump, 38 reps of 225 on the bench press. Last season, he notched 7.5 sacks and 54 tackles, as one of Tech's most impactful players on defense.

But his beyond-football mentality is also another big reason White came to play on The Flats.

"Being in Atlanta first and foremost, there's no other city like it. I feel like because all the business of the South comes through Atlanta and being at Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech sets you up really well for life outside of football," White said. "So I made a lot of good connections, met a lot of people. I'm big in that real estate development and everything like that."

White even added contracting and real estate to the list of new things he wanted to try.

"I worked for McKenney's (Mechanical Contractors). I worked for Certified Finishes, kind of started in the project management side and in the estimating side," he said. "But just trying to just feel around what I really like to do. But for me ultimately, like buying, renting out and holding properties is pretty much what I have a passion for. I'll probably end up doing it while I'm in the league and after."

Blame HGTV for home renovation romanticization – and the refinished dresser.

"I kind of felt like that was like such a dope process of building something off of something old and making it new," he said. "And then watching my HGTV when I was growing up, like, that was my thing. I love HGTV, so that was pretty dope, and just, I could never see myself working in like a cubicle, right?"

Sharing these stories about the well-rounded prospect he is off the football field only fuel the investment that teams are wanting to put into the unfinished product with tremendous upside that is Keion White.

"I had no intention of going to the NFL. I planned on just going into workforce like everybody else," White said.

Maybe he'll be able to dabble in real estate investment in the future, but a cubicle doesn't seem like something White will need to try on, with a clearer path ahead in football this time around.