Penn State defensive tackle Antoine White used to shake before he pounced into a gap on a pass rush or at a teammate in one-on-one drills.
“Shake it like a salt shaker,” White said his position coach, Sean Spencer, used to tell him. White’s “tell” didn’t necessarily stick, but the name “Salt” did through the redshirt sophomore’s early enrollee period in 2014 and his redshirt season thereafter.
Then, it got a little twist — “When I’d get mad or anything, he’d call me ‘Salty,’ ” said White to reporters on a conference call on Tuesday.
From the call alone, it didn’t sound as if White has a mean bone in his body — he greeted each reporter in turn and asked about their day before questions continued.
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But from the snaps he took last season, it was clear the former Millville High School (New Jersey) standout has some athletic talent (albeit raw) to work with. A former pitcher who gave up baseball for the gridiron in his teens — a curveball and a fastball were his go-to pitches — White saw backup time in 10 of Penn State’s 13 games in 2015 as a redshirt freshman and logged 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
This spring, he has rotated in and out of the 1- and 3-tech spots on Spencer’s line depending on defensive package type, but could spend more of his time in the 1-tech to tie up a run and free budding athletic talent Kevin Givens on the pass rush in the 3-tech, much like Austin Johnson for Anthony Zettel in seasons prior.
He also has been rebuilding his body since January, when it became clear that Penn State had immediate need on the line after the departure of three NFL-caliber players in Carl Nassib, Johnson and Zettel.
At 6-foot-2, White has worked to drop 11 pounds of fat and wants to gain them back as lean muscle as the season approaches, to play at about 290 pounds. He knows he has big shoes to fill on the interior after Johnson and Zettel combined for 125 tackles and 10.5 sacks — about 15 and 20 percent of the teams’ totals, respectively — but learned a lot from both.
“From A.J. and Zettel, I think (I’ve learned) how to be more poised, how to take care of the things you need to take care of and not do too much outside of your realm,” he said. “(And) those guys did a great job of having fun at practice. So we try to just mimic that behavior as much as we can.”
White is both continuing to learn his position and balancing his new leadership role for a very young group of defensive linemen, including redshirt freshman and budding standout Kevin Givens, redshirt freshmen Ryan Monk and Robert Windsor and soon, an incoming class that contains defensive tackle prospects Tyrell Chavis, Brenon Thrift and Ellison Jordan.
He said that the leadership of some of the units’ more senior players, like defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, have helped immensely with the learning curve of the group, which is “communicating really well.”
A fresh mindset helps White, too — something he mentioned again that he learned from Zettel and Johnson — especially after head coach James Franklin said earlier this spring that he is essentially the “model” of what a team wants from a defensive tackle.
No pressure, though, at least not to White.
“I think just by not getting wrapped up in all of those things, continuing to come out each day. ... I mean, practice is gonna be practice. It’s not gonna be fun every day,” he said. “But going out there and having fun with my teammates each day and just try to get better, that’s something that has helped me I think change my attitude this offseason. It’s changed my approach to workouts ... . Being able to be coachable has really helped me.”