Winona Christian football coach Junior Graham was somewhat nervous going into last year’s football season with John White at quarterback.
After all, it’s not every day that an eighth grader starts at quarterback in a varsity football game.
Graham knew he had a good quarterback but didn’t want to throw too much on his signal caller to start the season.
“I just wanted him to manage the game and do the little things and low and behold, he was really helping us win a lot of football games before the season was over. He definitely exceeded expectations. The only person that it didn’t surprise was John White. John thinks he is supposed to be successful and he has the wonderful ability to compartmentalize things when they go bad and that’s a rare thing. The ball really comes out of his hand and he has a really quick release. He’s what you look for in a quarterback.”
Not only did White manage the game, he became a force for the Stars on offense, throwing for 2,400 yards and 28 touchdowns as he led the Stars to a 9-3 record and a district championship.
“It was a growing process for him,” Graham said. “We learn a lot from our mistakes. He did a good job of flushing those mistakes and going on to the next play. I really saw that against Central Holmes. He threw a pick six and I was curious how he would respond so I called a pass play and he threw a 70-yard touchdown. He has the ability to flush and go on to the next play and you don’t expect that out of a young player, that’s for sure.”
White’s coming-out party was the Carroll Academy game when he threw for 477 yards and six touchdowns, including leading the Stars on a game-tying drive with 38.5 seconds remaining. White eventually threw the two-point conversion that gave the Stars a 48-46 win and the district 2-3A championship.
“I saw two areas of growth as the year went on,” Graham said. “At the first of the year, he was holding the ball too long. As the year progressed, if his read was covered, he was throwing the ball away. We had to work with getting him to figure that out. The second area, we never ran him until the playoffs. He has excellent vision and understands the run game. He ran for two scores against Centreville and two extra points against Indianola. He had some really good runs. He grew as a quarterback and utilized that clock in his head.”
With that late-season success running the football, Graham said he sees an expanded role for White this season.
“He is going to run the ball more this season and allow us to be more diversified this year,” Graham said. “And he is already 30 pounds heavier than he was last year and he is a lot stronger. He’s not a guy that we want to run 10 or 15 times a game but he will allow us to dictate the numbers people can put in the box with his ability to run the ball.”
Even Graham admitted that it was a good year to have an eighth grader at quarterback with the receivers that the Star were able to put on the field last year.
“He had a perfect storm as far as receivers because he was throwing to guys who were all over six feet tall,” Graham said. “It’s a lot easier when you are throwing to really tall guys, they can make up for a lot of mistakes. He will have some good receivers this year but they will be young. They just won’t be as tall so that will be a challenge for John to adjust to that.”
While Graham was nervous about starting an eighth grader, it didn’t surprise the veteran coach that White had the kind of season he did.
“He is an alpha male, doesn’t matter where he is at,” Graham said. “He is aggressive, coachable and has a burning desire to be better. Those guys that have that desire and can produce, can succeed at a high level. And he embraces the weight room. He is going to grow over time and has a chance to be a big physical quarterback that can throw the mess out of it.”
Graham said White is currently 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds but thinks that White will eventually end up being 6-foot-3 or taller.
Graham said he has had some good quarterbacks over the years and they all have some of the same qualities.
“Quarterback is a hard position,” Graham said. “John works so many hours by himself. He goes to the quarterback coach and does all of those drills to make himself better. That’s what he is growing as a player. He is just a sponge. He is going to absorb any information you give him and work hard at it. He wants to be one of the best and is working hard to be there. He is really a self driven kid.”
But things weren’t always easy for White, like the final game of the season, a 35-28 loss to Indianola in the playoffs agains a team the Stars beat earlier that year. In that game, White was sacked five times while the Stars committed five turnovers.
“The ones that I have had that are really good are the toughest guys on the field,” Graham said. “When they get hit, they usually get smoked. It speaks volumes to the offensive line when that guy can just come back. When he got hit, just just stayed in there. There were times when he took shots that were borderline cheap but he went on and played the next play. He was able to slow the game down because of his knowledge of the game.”
While White may be at a disadvantage of playing at a small Mississippi private school, Graham said he believes White will play at the next level if he desires.
“I think the sky is the limit for him,” Graham said. “He has already started doing the right things to get recruited by going to the camps and getting in front of the college coaches. He has put up some really good stats and is grown physically into the position. I think the biggest thing for him is if he is going to get to where he wants to go, he will have to maintain that hunger. Hunger is like anything else, it has roadblocks that can keep you from where you want to go.”
Graham said because White is such a good athlete, who also plays basketball and baseball, that the freshman will likely see other parts of the field as well.
“He is taking some reps at free safety as well,” Graham said. “he will be that guy that every now and then you will have to play on defense. We don’t have the depth for him to not play some on defense, especially when we get in district play or deep in the season. He can play cornerback or safety with his skill set.”