(This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.)
When the Cowboys' defensive co-MVP from last season, Orlando Scandrick, sustained a torn ACL during the last week of training camp, an injury that ended his season before it began, it could have been a devastating blow for the club.
But the Cowboys were in a unique position to absorb his loss thanks to more depth in the secondary than in years past. In addition to first-round draft choice Byron Jones and second-year man Tyler Patmon, one key player who has helped fill the void is Corey White, a fourth-year NFLer whom Dallas claimed off waivers from New Orleans back in March – a move that is looking particularly smart right now.
"We definitely have a next-man-up policy here," White said. "If they didn't believe in us, they probably would have gone out and got another corner, but they didn't do that. They really believe in us. We've got a lot of depth here. Guys like Patmon and Byron, those guys would be starters anywhere in the league right now. They just trust us. We're going to do our role and move forward."
Management has clearly been impressed with how well the 6-1, 210-pound cornerback has handled himself. Part of his value is his versatility. He can play corner, safety or even line up in the slot in the nickel packages, a role he only recently took over from Patmon.
"It's been like that all of my career, the more you can do the better," White said. "We've got a lot of talent here, so I'm just in my role and trying to do it the best I can."
He has seen plenty of action in each of the Cowboys' first seven games, both in the secondary and on special teams. He seamlessly integrated himself into the squad's defensive rotation before moving into the lead slot cornerback role.
"I've been excited and waiting on this opportunity for a while now, making an impression on a new team," said White, who was the Saints' fifth-round choice (162 overall) in the 2012 draft out of Samford. "I've put in a lot of work. I spent a lot of time in my playbook, watching film from last year and seeing how these guys do it, and tried to adapt to them."
It's been an eventful year so far for White, who was unexpectedly let go by New Orleans, and then had to adjust to a new city and teammates. The first step was putting his release behind him, acknowledging that the NFL is a business first.
"I wasn't aware (I was about to be waived), but things happen," White said. "Regardless of the circumstance, it's a business. The head coach, GM, owner, they have their ideas or opinions in going in a certain direction. It's a business first. They had a lot of transactions this offseason. All you can do is thank God for the new opportunity, like I'm doing now, and just move forward."
As for the process of adapting to a new team, the biggest challenge was getting accustomed to a new everyday routine and understanding the differences in the Dallas defense compared to what he was used to in New Orleans.
"Just getting used to the style, how they practice, how they handle themselves around the locker room, the schedule, the play-calling, the language – that's the hardest part," White said of his transition. "Football is football, but it's the terminology, the signs, the language and all of that. And you're getting used to the new city, all the traveling, going to the stadium and the facilities, and just the weekly schedule becoming a routine."
Then, in the middle of still learning his new team's defense, White had to leave abruptly for the birth of his first child, a daughter named Aubrey, on Aug. 19. Just days later, he was back on the field, playing in the Cowboys' preseason game at San Francisco, a contest in which he made an outstanding deflection in the end zone on a third-down pass to prevent a touchdown and force a field goal.
"That's just the business, sometimes things just come up like that," he said of the hectic schedule then, flying back and forth within such a short time frame. "That's just being a pro."
And while he won't be as involved as he'd maybe like to be with Aubrey on an everyday basis during her first few months, he's overjoyed at her arrival.
"She's been doing great," he said. "Her mom, my girlfriend, knows that during the season she's going to be doing most of the work, but she's fine with that. She's going to let me focus on my job and all that. It'll be good. I'm pretty good at separating on the field with off the field."
On the field, White has shown tremendous growth in just a few short seasons. For a guy who was only a two-year starter at a small school like Samford, his development into an NFL player has been impressive.
Following a strong senior campaign at Dunwoody (Ga.) High School, White enrolled at Samford, an FBS school based in Birmingham, Ala., that plays out of the Southern Conference. White made it onto the field as a true freshman, recording 15 tackles and three pass breakups in reserve action.
"We recruited him and were very high on him when he got here, and just throughout his career here, he continued to work hard, continued to improve," said longtime Samford defensive coordinator Bill D'Ottavio, who quickly noticed and utilized White's ability to play multiple positions. "He actually started his career for us as a safety, and he was one of the best cover people on our football team, so we moved him out to the corner. He also played in the slot as a nickel back for us, so he was a versatile performer for us here."
As a sophomore in 2009, White again played a reserve role for the squad, but was on the field more often, as he registered 36 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups during the Bulldogs' 5-6 season.
"I didn't really play regularly until my junior year. I really only had two years of playing in college at a small school, but I did well," White said, crediting the Samford coaching staff, including former head coach Pat Sullivan, with knowing when to give a player increased responsibility on the field. "They definitely have a program where they like to mold young players and not throw them out there until they're ready. I had a great supporting cast. I tip my hat to them."
As a junior full-time starter in 2010, White contributed 31 tackles, one interception, seven passes defended and two forced fumbles as Samford finished 4-7 on the year. At that point, he still didn't really believe he had a chance of advancing to the NFL, though, especially since there wasn't much of a track record of his off-the-beaten-path school producing elite talent.
"Just knowing the history about how not many NFL players came from that school, I didn't really worry about, or have visions of me making it, so I just focused day by day, play by play, and just put out good film," White explained. "With a little bit of help from my supporting cast, all I could do is just work. Control what I could control and come to work."
Off the field, he was excelling, too, well on his way to earning a degree in mathematics/computer science – not your typical football player major.
"I always grew up as a math-head," White said. "I had pretty good grades in high school, that had a lot to do with my math classes, and I always loved numbers. I loved business. Numbers, they're going to be around forever, so why not pursue something like that? I had dreams, but I always had backup plans. I always really focused on school. My dad always preached education growing up, so that was my first mindset going into college: get an education, graduate and go from there."
Besides enjoying working with numbers, White liked how a degree in math and computer science could set him up for a wide variety of possible career paths, although he hadn't quite decided in what specific direction to go.
"It's a real open field, you could get a lot of different jobs, so I was just going to work my way up the food chain," White said. "That's how America works. You start low, work your way up, and that's what I was going to do."
But then he started catching the attention of NFL scouts during his senior year, as the Bulldogs went 6-5 and finished the season with a close loss on the road at Auburn in front of more than 85,000 fans. White amassed 58 tackles, a team-leading four interceptions, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.
"The thing with Corey is that he really worked at the game," D'Ottavio said. "He really worked in the weight room, he worked at his craft, and studying offenses and developing his mental game. He put a lot of the pieces together.
"Some guys play on ability alone, but Corey kept pushing it to that next level, and he also developed himself into an excellent special teams player. From the day he stepped onto this campus until the day he left, he continued to develop as a football player, and he just kept getting better at what he did and maximizing the ability that he had. It was just a growth process. He kept pushing himself to be really good."
At the NFL Scouting Combine prior to the 2012 draft, White turned more heads, ranking among the top five defensive backs in the vertical jump and the broad jump, while also turning in a scorching 4.55-second time in the 40-yard dash.
"I had a pretty good senior season, and I had a great offseason as far as the combine and pro day," White said. "I improved after I played my last game of the season, so that helped. All I could do is control what I could control and it worked out."
The Saints drafted him in the fifth round and he made an immediate impact, starting the 2012 season opener for them. White played in each of the first nine games, starting four, before suffering a knee injury that kept him out of six of the final seven contests. Overall, as a rookie, White recorded 32 tackles, an interception and three passes defended while also adding four special teams tackles.
Just like he did at Samford, White moved around between cornerback, safety, and lining up in the slot in the nickel for New Orleans, continuing to gain valuable experience in all aspects of the secondary.
In his second season, White played all 16 contests for the Saints, starting six, and finishing the regular season with 42 tackles, one interception, seven pass breakups and one fumble recovery. He also added two tackles and a forced fumble in special teams play.
Buoyed by the return of Sean Payton as head coach (after his year-long suspension by the NFL due to the bounty scandal), New Orleans went 11-5 that year, winning a playoff game before falling in the divisional round to Seattle. For his part, White started both of those postseason outings, totaling seven tackles and a pass defended.
Last season was more of the same for White, as he started five of the 15 games in which he played, notching career highs in tackles (54), interceptions (2), and pass breakups (19), while also registering his first career sack. His performance made his ensuing release all the more surprising.
Still, despite the abrupt ending, White enjoyed his time in New Orleans and feels like it helped shape him into a better player, citing Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan as positive influences.[embeddedad0]
"They helped me a lot with my growth there," White said. "When I came in my rookie year, I had a starting role in the nickel and from there, I just grew. Being around Rob and those guys, my coaches there, they really molded me into the player I became. All I could do is get better. They really built me well. Sean is a great coach, he likes to develop young players, and I give them a lot of praise for doing that."
The Cowboys are thankful, too, or they wouldn't have pounced to claim White off waivers back on March 14.
"He's got a great mind-set for the game," D'Ottavio said of White. "He understands concepts for the game, and I knew once he got into that league, he'd continue to grow, and he's done that. I'm very proud of him."