April 27, 2012
In an age of high octane offense played on synthetic surfaces built for speed, the mention of the Wing-T conjures images of Friday Night Lights on dusty fields in distant outposts. At a point in history where the role of the passing game has seldom been more prominent, an attack geared mostly to advancing the ball on the ground seems somehow quaint.
But the ol' Wing T hasn't been totally relegated to a dusty corner of a museum. In fact, it holds a key to the story of a Villanova Wildcat wideout whose return to the field this fall is one reason why Head Coach Andy Tallley's team believes it will soon be back to the form that helped deliver an FCS NCAA title to the Main Line in 2009 followed by an FCS semifinal berth in 2010.
In a sense, the Wing T represents the first chapter of a career arc that could one day add Norman White's name to the litany of Wildcats who have earned a paycheck in the National Football League.
On a recent spring morning the senior - who retains one season of eligibility after being shelved for all of 2011 with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot - could be seen making the kind of signature athletic grab that helped distinguish him as one of the Colonial Athletic Association's top receivers in 2010.
"Everything feels good," says White, who collected 69 receptions and 11 touchdowns as a first team All-CAA choice in his junior season. "It gets a little sore after practice but they told me that was going to happen. I feel like I'm right back to where I was before the injury."
That is a welcome development for a Villanova team that endured a difficult 2011 campaign as it re-tooled after a glorious 3-year run that resulted in the school's first ever NCAA football title in '09 and a caseload of happy memories. The young Wildcats who learned under duress are back mostly intact and eager to continue the improvement they demonstrated toward the end of what became a 2-9 campaign.
In White, the Wildcats can turn to a proven playmaker who played alongside the likes of Matt Szczur, Brandyn Harvey and Chris Whitney, three of the offensive lynchpins during the run of playoff success that included seven post-season victories in a 3-year span.
"I learned a lot from all of those guys," says White.
White's path to becoming an elite receiver at this level was slightly different than most and that had a little something to do with the Wing T. The old standard was the offense of choice at St. Joseph of Hammonton (N.J.) High School, where White played before coming to Villanova. Though he was a starter and first team All Cape Atlantic (N.J.) choice, there weren't myriad chances for the 6-4, 210 pound receiver to demonstrate his gifts. In fact, his athleticism was more readily visible to the casual observer on the basketball court, where he was good enough to become the third leading scorer in school history.
"They ran the Wing T (there) so you really needed to project into the basketball world," explains Talley after directing the team's final spring workout. "When you looked at him on tape in high school, you saw potentially almost a mid-major athlete as a basketball player. He's 6-5 and was going to get bigger physically. He was so athletic - not really a speed burner but fast enough. I am really surprised the big D I's didn't take a shot at him."
There was a time during his high school career that White believed his athletic future might come in the form of a basketball scholarship. In fact, his first college offer came from Holy Family University, which liked his hoops game.
"I really didn't think about playing football in college until the end of my junior year in high school," says White, whose parents are Norman and Robin White. "I only had six catches my junior year so I didn't really think I was going to make it to the next level. Luckily, Villanova offered me."
Projection is such a critical component in recruiting but it was especially true in this case. The Wing T offense places a priority on receivers' blocking skills and doesn't often allow them to showcase their route-running and hands to college coaches. But, by closely studying White on the football field and the basketball court, the Villanova staff felt it had located an overlooked prospect with a much higher ceiling than most were forecasting at the time.
"He didn't have the numbers that wideouts usually have," notes Talley. "I think we were lucky to get him."
One hint that White would be up to the task at this level was his willingness to do the dirty work of blocking. It spoke to a grit and determination that would translate well to Villanova's spread offense.
"We saw enough toughness on the football field and on the basketball court that said this guy would really be a good player in the spread offense for us," Talley states.
When White got to Villanova, he joined a core that was on the verge of writing its own chapter in the long and successful Talley era. By the time the 2008 season began, Whitney was established as the starting quarterback behind an outstanding offensive line. Harvey was in place as a go-to receiver and the coaching staff was devising all manner of ways to get the ball into the hands of Szczur, the electric receiver/runner/return man. Meanwhile, the defense was rock solid.
The transition wasn't made in an instant. There were nuances in routes and assignments to digest so White leaned on Wide Receivers Coach Brian Flinn and his fellow position mates, including Harvey, to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
"We weren't really a passing (high) school, so reading defenses and coverages was an adjustment for me," he says of those first warm days on the field at Villanova Stadium in August 2008. "It was hard on me at the beginning. But Coach Flinn brought me in and worked with me, told me what to do in certain situations. My teammates and a lot of people helped me make that transition."
It didn't hurt that White was the kind of student teachers relish.
"Norm's got a great attitude and work ethic," says Talley. "Wide receivers can sometimes come to you with a bit of a prima donna attitude. Norm wasn't one of those guys. He's a football player."
"The best thing about Norm is that he is the most coachable kid I've been around," adds Flinn. "That was true on his first day here and was just as true as when I met with him this morning. When you point a mistake out to him, he just corrects it. There were some adjustments he had to make coming from the Wing T, but it didn't take him that long because anything you told him to do, he did."
In fact, White caught four passes in the 2008 season opener at West Virginia, nearly matching his total production from his junior year at St. Joseph's of Hammonton. Villanova rolled to an FCS playoff berth that season and a year later made its charge to Chattanooga, site of the 2009 title game. White's role wasn't as prominent as that of Szczur or Harvey but he was a dependable option for Whitney as the Wildcats posted four playoff wins, capped by the triumph over Montana for the NCAA title.
Even as a young athlete at this level, White could "play to his size" as Flinn puts it. He calmly handled any assignment he was given. In 2010, the graduation of Harvey signaled that his duties were about to increase.
"Brandyn Harvey was one of those talented receivers that always wanted the ball," Talley states. "Brandyn could make the big catch and he is tough. That was a leadership principle that helped Norm. He saw his toughness and his route running, and learned from it."
The leap from supporting actor to leading man isn't always a smooth one. Some athletes perform best in the shadows and are quite comfortable letting others take the lead. The Villanova staff held the firm conviction that White was more than ready for the spotlight and he once again wasted little time in accepting the challenge. That was especially true when Szczur was sidelined for a six week stretch in the middle of 2010 with a severe ankle injury.
"When we lost Matt, Norm stepped up to make every single big play we needed him to make," says Flinn.
White would finish the season with 69 receptions and help lead the Wildcats to a pair of road wins in the first two rounds of the FCS playoffs. During Szczur's absence, White caught a touchdown pass in six consecutive games and finished with 11 for the season. It was an impressive effort that set him up for what promised to be a stellar senior season in 2011.
Yet in a pre-season workout without pads, White's foot was accidentally hit. The contact was barely noticed until the next morning when he felt some pain. He received treatment and bounced back well enough to participate in a team scrimmage. But during that practice, he aggravated the injury and this time the mood was more somber.
"I kind of knew after that this could take a while," says White now.
White donned a walking boot and visited a foot specialist. It was then announced on Sept. 1, just as the Wildcats were getting set to play Temple, that the injury would cost him the season.
"It was heartbreaking because he was a pro prospect and our captain," says Talley. "We were hoping to package a big year for him."
The good news was that no surgery was required - treatment and rest allowed the foot to heal. But the down side was that a roster filled with young players would have to make do without its most dependable offensive playmaker. And for White it meant the adoption of a role no athlete seeks, that of idle observer.
True to his nature, though, White embraced the situation. Instead of creating distance between himself and his younger teammates, he became a mentor. There were days when he helped signal plays in during practice. At some games he joined the coaches in their press box perch. At all times he was an encouraging sounding board for those trying to fill his shoes.
"He handled that better than anybody I've ever had that lost a year," says Talley. "He was in everybody's ear, he pumped people up. That's not always easy to do when you are injured. You are mentally down and you don't feel a part of it. But because of the kind of person Norm is, he handled it. I think it says a lot about what a great person he is."
"People sometimes think leadership is yelling but there's a lot more to it than that," adds Flinn. "Norm has a way of communicating that people gravitate to. There is a respect for him in the meeting rooms because of who he is and how he carries himself. He's amazingly low maintenance."
White suffered along with his teammates through what became a difficult campaign. Yet he and those around the program were cheered by the growth seen from the young roster as October turned into November. Now, he seems poised to reclaim the lost season.
"In hindsight, given that we really couldn't get a quarterback set, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise," notes Talley. "It would have been a waste of his talent and his year. It hurt us not to have him, but we were on our way to a not very good year anyway. He's back in a year where he's going to have a skilled quarterback who can make him a 75-catch type of player."
Sophomore quarterback Chris Polony helped spark the Wildcats' upset Massachusetts in the final road game of 2011 and seems ready to make a significant step forward in year two. Redshirt freshman John Robertson brings an impressive skill set to the position as well.
As for White, he impressed the staff with his contributions in the spring practice sessions that recently concluded.
"Looks like the beat goes on," says Talley. "He made some plays that only Norm can make."
By coincidence, Villanova's spring practice concluded one day before the three day 2012 National Football League draft got underway. Were it not for the injury, it's entirely possible that White may have preparing for an anxious weekend as he looked to be a contender to have his name called, as former teammate Ben Ijalana's was last year . Instead, he will be on campus, working towards another fall on the Main Line.
Yet, there is no bemoaning what might have been. White is very much in the moment, ready to be a leader on and off the field for the 2012 Wildcats and quite willing to keep his focus there.
Patience and perseverance have proven to be White's allies in the past. They helped him earn a football scholarship out of an offense that stopped being the rage in college decades ago. They got him through a year without playing football.
Come fall, they seem poised to reward him yet again.
By MIKE SHERIDAN
Villanova Media Relations