Niyo: Michigan State's Cody White making 'leap of faith' to grab NFL dream

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Cody White knows what you’re probably thinking. In this age of social media, it’s not hard to tell, right?

But in case anyone cares, here’s what he’s thinking, a few weeks after he surprised many Michigan State fans — and some folks inside the Spartans’ football program as well — with the announcement he’s bypassing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.

Cody White led Michigan State with 66 catches for 922 yards and six touchdowns last season.

This wasn’t some knee-jerk decision made without considering the consequences, White said this week in a phone interview from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he’s busy preparing for the biggest job interview of his life. And while it’s not something he wanted to think about during his junior season last fall, he admits the idea has been in the back of his mind for almost as long as he can remember.

“Ever since I was 6 years old, I guess you could say, being on the sideline with my dad,” laughed White, whose father, Sheldon, spent six seasons as an NFL player and then nearly two decades as a scout and front-office executive with the Detroit Lions before taking a job on the Michigan State football staff. “This is a dream I’ve always had, and I feel like now I’m just ready to take that jump and make it a reality.”

So ready or not, here he goes, a 21-year-old chasing his dream and ignoring the critics convinced he’s making a mistake.

“I know when I made the decision, there were some people who weren't happy, and people saying ‘You’re not gonna make it’ and stuff like that,” said White, a former all-state standout and multi-sport star at Walled Lake Western. “But I just try to always block out things like that and look for the positives, the people embracing my decision and wishing the me the best of luck and a great career in the NFL.”

White was Michigan State’s leading receiver the last two seasons, but the 6-foot-3, 215-pound wideout isn’t a projected first-round pick this spring. He’s not a likely second-round pick, either, based on the feedback he received earlier this month from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee.

Schools can submit the names of up to five players each year for an evaluation to help them make their early-entry decisions. And the committee, which includes high-level personnel evaluators from NFL teams, produces a report that rates players as either potential first- or second-round picks, or neither, which is effectively a recommendation to return to school.

White’s evaluation fell into the latter category, though he says scouts had a wide range of grades on him, from the second round to the sixth. And that left him with plenty to think about after the Spartans’ season ended with a win over Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl.

But not before, because that was the agreement going back to last summer when he discussed his NFL future with his father, who joined Dantonio’s staff as a consultant in 2016 and just finished his third season as MSU’s executive director of player personnel and recruiting.

“He wanted no part of it, until the season was over,” Sheldon White said. “So there was zero conversation last fall. If any agent even tried to say ‘Hi’ to him, the answer was, ‘Let me forward you to my dad.’”

Michigan State wide receiver Cody White had 36 catches for xxx yards over his last five games in 2019.

Father knows best

Once the season ended, though, it was time to talk. Time to listen as well, because given his father’s extensive NFL background, including a stint as the Lions’ interim general manager in 2015, there was plenty of institutional knowledge sitting at the family dinner table.

“Normal people would go to ask advisers or an agent, but I’m going to talk to my dad, because he’s been through it and he knows the ins and outs,” Cody said.

He also knew something else, though.

“As a parent you’re obviously a little anxious because it’s your own kid,” Sheldon White said. “But you also have to realize, ‘I’m too close to it.’”

So while he helped supplement the information his son received from the NFL, and vetting potential agents when the time came — White ultimately signed with another father-son team in Roosevelt and Jovan Barnes of ISE Worldwide — he also made sure this was a decision Cody came to on his own.

If he’d stayed, White would’ve had another year to improve his draft stock and likely finish his career No. 2 on Michigan State’s all-time receptions list behind B.J. Cunningham. It also would’ve been another year “with my teammates, my friends and my brothers,” all of them hungry for something more after back-to-back 7-6 seasons for the Spartans.

“That was hard to leave,” said White, who joined Michigan State junior cornerback Josiah Scott as one of 99 early-entry draft prospects this year. “I’m not gonna lie, that was tough.”

So was breaking the news to coach Mark Dantonio, who was “a little disappointed,” White said, though “he understood that I had to make the decision that was best for me.”

“I love Coach D as a person and I love Michigan State as a football program,” he added.

But on the other side of the ledger was the injury risk and, yes, the questions about Michigan State’s offense heading into next season, particularly the uncertainty at quarterback after the departure of three-year starter Brian Lewerke

“For sure, you have to factor it in,” White said. “You don’t know who’s gonna be the guy and you don’t know what next year will be like.”

Still, he says what really tipped the scales was the feeling that he was ready, following a junior season in which he had 66 receptions for 922 yards and six touchdowns on a team that ranked 95th nationally in total offense and 102nd in passing efficiency. That included a strong finish with 36 catches for 523 yards over his last five games, showing his versatility by playing every receiver position — a trait NFL teams will be looking for with receivers.

As for the cons about turning pro, he admits, “some of those are yet to come.”

Up to speed

But that’s why he’s busy training full time in Florida at IMG with about 20 other draft prospects, including a pair of rival Wolverines in Shea Patterson and Lavert Hill and fellow receivers Justin Jefferson (LSU), K.J. Osborn (Miami) and Stephen Guidry (Mississippi State).

Nutritionists monitor their daily diets, and there’s full staff working with the athletes in the gym, on the practice field and also in prepping for all the pre-draft interviews they’ll have with NFL teams.

White should know in the next week or so if he’s invited to the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. But if not, he knows it’ll only ratchet up the pressure for Michigan State’s pro day in mid-March. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds with a big catch radius, White, who spent some time working 1-on-1 with Calvin Johnson last summer, has the kind of measurables NFL teams covet.

“But everybody has been wondering how fast I am, how fast I can run,” said White, who trains with IMG’s speed development coach, Mo Wells, every morning. “So I know if I could put a good number up, it would be a big deal.”

The other deal is even bigger, though: White was on track to graduate at the end of the 2020 fall semester, and finishing his degree was non-negotiable. The point his dad has always stressed is that every upperclassman on a college roster is basically at the end of his football career.

“Once you get to this point, you’re just trying to extend it as long as you can,” Sheldon White said. “And before you’re done playing, you need to have your degree in your hand. So I just said, ‘You’ve got to graduate — that’s it. So what’s your plan for that?’”

As for the decision to stay or go, “I’ll keep that between him and me, what we talked about before he left,” Sheldon said. “But whatever he decided, I said, ‘Hey, I’m 100 percent behind whatever you want to do.’ … He’s ready to take his shot. I’m on Team Cody.”

And that sentiment was among the things they discussed again in a phone call this past weekend, in the wake of the news about Kobe Bryant’s shocking death. Father and son talked about having only one life to live and making the most of every opportunity.

So is there a risk in what he’s doing right now? Sure.

“It’s a leap of faith,” Cody White said, “but I feel like I made the right decision.”

Cody White’s MSU stats

2017: 13 games, 35 receptions, 490 yards, 4 TD

2018: 9 games, 42 receptions, 555 yards, 2 TD

2019: 13 games, 66 receptions, 922 yards, 6 TD

Twitter: @JohnNiyo