Sean White’s first steps on the journey to becoming Auburn’s starting quarterback started at the Tri-Rail station in Boca Raton, Fla.
Starting out as a 14-year-old high school freshman, White rode the Florida rail line in the southeast portion of the state every day as early as 6:30 in the morning during the school year.
He made the 42-minute trip twice a day for three years to attend Chaminade-Madonna High School in Hollywood, Fla., the school he felt strongly about playing football.
His parents, Don and Leah White, weren’t pushing him in that direction, and he wasn’t influenced by any coach. He grew up playing youth football with a group of talented kids who attended the prep school, and he felt joining them would give him a chance to thrive on the field.
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The gifted athlete had lofty aspirations; visions of playing football at the highest levels from a very young age.
When Sean’s father asked private quarterback (coach) Ken Mastrole to work with his son starting in the eighth grade, the former Chicago Bear, and Arena Leaguer quickly identified what many coaches would see in the years to come — White’s determination to get to another level.
“You know the 10,000-hour rule? He was always on that path,” Mastrole said, referencing author Malcolm Galdwell’s theory on high-level professional success. “You have to have a purpose to all those hours, and he always had a purpose. The commute he had his first three year of high school is an example of him going out on his own, and pushing himself.”
White wasn’t overwhelmingly more talented than his classmates, it was his work ethic, and focus that put him on a path to realizing his dreams.
Former University coach Roger Harriott played against Sean White before having the opportunity to coach him. White transferred to University High School after his junior season at Chaminade-Madonna, midway through the school year.
“You could see his command of the field,” Harriott said. “He made exceptional decisions, and was a great field general.”
University’s then-offensive coordinator Ryan Schneider was on the sidelines as well, and vividly remembers White’s “huge arm.”
While White possessed a number of positive attributes, he wasn’t handed the starting job when he arrived at a program two years removed from winning a state title.
“He had to come in and compete like everybody else,” Harriott said. “He wasn’t really a national prospect at the time, but he grew in our offense.”
As White solidified the starting job, he became one of University’s central leaders.
“He is the epitome of a leader,” Harriott said. “He’s extremely competitive, but he’s also a solid student in the classroom, honest and a benevolent teammate. He came to us as a polished role model.”
Turning stress into productivity
White’s 2,679 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior made him one of Broward County’s all-time passing leaders. He led University to a 10-3 record, and a regional finals appearance where it lost 45-17 to eventual champion Booker T. Washington.
USA Today named Booker T. Washington its 2013 High School Football National Champions that season. The team featured a number of future Division I players including Florida quarterback Treon Harris, and Miami running back Mark Walton.
University fell behind 21-3 in the loss, but White threw for a pair of touchdowns in the second half.
“They were a great team,” Harriott said. “Sean is just so competitive, and he stayed poised. He always had that refuse-to-lose attitude.”
The season had its share of memorable moments, but it was the time spent behind the scenes working with Schneider that transformed White into the quarterback he is today.
“Ryan was an incredible asset to Sean,” Mastrole said. “He helped his maturation process, pushed him out of his comfort zone and prepared him for college coaching.”
Schneider threw for more than 10,000 yards as a three-plus year starter at UCF. The offensive coordinator’s Division I background heavily influences his coaching style, and how he teaches quarterbacks.
“The quarterback has the most stressful position on the field, I fell that if you make it as stressful as you can in practice, that makes the game atmosphere easier to handle,” Schneider said.
White’s work with Mastrole gave him a head-start on mechanics, but Schneider stressed perfection.
“He had a tight throwing motion, it doesn’t take him a long time to get the ball out of his hands, he doesn’t have a high arm release, but is arm is so strong sometimes he would be late on passes,” Schneider said. “He would use his arm strength to catch up, and that would hurt his accuracy.”
No detail was too small for Schneider as he describes himself as “intense as can be” on everything from a quarterback’s footwork to pre- and post-snap reads.
White was up to the task, and mastered Schneider’s complex offensive system. Despite only one off-season or preparation, White picked from two plays at the line of scrimmage based on what the look from the defense during the season.
“We would put something up one time on the board, and he got it,” Schneider said. “It was shocking how quickly he grasped everything we threw at him the first time he saw it.”
White’s standout senior year propelled him to the top of the Class of 2014 quarterback rankings directly onto Auburn’s radar.
The top recruiting services Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN all listed White among the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation at the end of the season.
Harriott chuckles when thinks about discussions he had with scouts, and recruiting analysts about White earlier that year.
“I think he was the last guy invited to the Elite 11, and the Under Armour All-American game,” Harriott says, with a hint of irony.
Schneider heard the questions about White’s size, he’s 6-foot-0, 200-pounds, and at the time dismissed concerns over White’s arm strength.
“His arm strength is NFL level,” Schneider said. “He has the strongest arm I’ve ever had as a high school coach. He spins it. There’s nothing he can do about the height, but there are a ton of examples from Russell Wilson to Drew Brees of guys that aren’t 6-foot-5 succeeding.”
Mastrole never agreed with the perceived weaknesses in White’s game, but always maintained White’s intangibles as a player outweighed any negative skill evaluations.
“We all screamed how good he was to coaches when he was being recruited,” Mastrole said, laughing. “Fans and outside evaluators don’t get to see a guys moxie. What are they going to bring to the other 10 guys in the huddle? You have to make players better around you, and Sean has always been able to do that.”
Auburn wasn’t the obvious fit for White.
Coach Gus Malzahn’s system appeared perfectly tailored to more mobile quarterbacks based on his success with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall.
Schneider said White is “more athletic than people think,” but acknowledges that White is more of a pro-style passer.
“It was one thing I was worried,” Schneider said. “I told him that, but he trusted them.”
White developed a strong bond with Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee said the Tigers’ coaching staff would put White in the right style of offense to succeed.
Lashlee’s assurances jumped Auburn to the front of the line, ahead of 13 other schools including offers from West Virginia, Wake Forest and Boston College.
“It was a no-brainer for him,” Schneider said.
Instead of worrying about the competition in front of him, White used Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson as assets. He developed a friendship with Johnson, and worked to learn as much as he could from his teammate.
“There offense isn’t an easy one to pick up, so he spent the last year picking up the finite details of it guys like Nick and Jeremy,” Mastrole said.
Seizing the moment
There are parallels between White’s current situation, and the time leading up to his senior year.
With replacing quarterback Jeremy Johnson midway through the season, White jumps into a new role, and has to prove to his teammates the coaching staff’s confidence wasn’t misplaced.
It’s what he did as a transfer with ease.
White has earned a high degree of respect, and trust from his former coaches, who all expect him to make the most of the opportunity to start Saturday against Mississippi State.
“I knew once the opportunity presented itself, that he would take,” Harriott said. “He’s the type of kid that everyone roots for.”
Schneider said White will do what he has always done — focus on what’s in front of him.
“He just has to worry about the first play, that first read, the first cadence,” Schneider said. “It will allow him to zone in, and just relax. He’s going to do great, the coaches are going to put him in a good position and he’s going to succeed. No matter what.”