Nov 16, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) is sacked by Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Lawrence White (11) in the first quarter against the Iowa State Cyclones at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Longhorns 23 to 21. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State senior safety Lawrence White’s first career start came unexpectedly.
The typically steady Kamari Cotton-Moya had been suspended for a violation of team rules at the 2017 Liberty Bowl, so White was tabbed to step in for the Cyclones in their first bowl game in five seasons.
White not only stepped in, he stepped up — posting six tackles as ISU upset the No. 20 Memphis Tigers, 21-20, and earned the program’s first bowl win since 2009.
Now White’s a mainstay at safety for the Cyclones. He started all 13 games last season, ranked second on the team in tackles with 84 and, judging by fellow senior Greg Eisworth’s glowing preseason observations, the best is yet to come.
“Honestly, he’s one of the guys that I’ve seen evolve the most,” said Eisworth, who is expected to start alongside White in ISU’s Sept. 12 season opener against Louisiana. “Mentally and physically, he’s really becoming one of the big leaders on the team this season. Really stepping up and taking a lot of big roles in a lot of things and I think that’s awesome for him because I feel like he’s always had it. I think he’s really stepping into that and stepping into that potential that he has and, you know, he still has a lot more room to grow — a lot more things that he can do and become.”
The same can be said of the Cyclones writ large, who hope learning to weather an array of tight losses while going 7-6 in 2019 will lead to a breakthrough akin to White’s in the 2017 Liberty Bowl this season.
ISU returns nine starters — counting star defensive end JaQuan Bailey, who returns from a leg injury, among them — on a defense that’s been at least top-three in the Big 12 the past three seasons.
But how good could this iteration of the Cyclones’ defense be?
“We have a special group,” said White, a criminal justice major from Bakersfield, Calif., who graduated last spring. “We have a defense that’s motivated and is willing to take it to the next level. We’re doing a great job right now and we have to continue to make great strides. We have a lot of veterans and leaders and that’s good for the young guys — we’re trying to be the best example for them and teach them how we run this defense.”
Eisworth — a preseason all-Big 12 selection — is obviously the headliner at safety for the Cyclones, but White’s strong and steady growth gives the team a potent one-two punch on the back end. White started all 13 games last season while Eisworth played through pain with a shoulder injury. Eisworth only missed one full game, though, and White said his example — and coaching — aided his development.
“Greg had a huge impact, whether he knows it or not,” White said. “The way he came in and played here, that really influenced me and it made me up my game to try and match his. He’s helped me in a lot of ways. It was difficult for me at first. Whether that was film study or knowing how to practice — he just helped me find little things to help fix my game. I have to give thanks to him whether he knows he helped me or not.”
He probably knows. If not, he knows now. Cyclones coach Matt Campbell has known all along — even before that unexpected first start in Memphis — that White, like Eisworth, is a “really special human being.”
It’s just that now he’s a seasoned football player, leader and prime example of what it means to be a Cyclone.
“When Lawrence White speaks, everybody listens,” Campbell said. “When Lawrence White speaks, it comes from a really special place because he’s a young man that’s battled tough and trying times — he’s battled good times and he’s battled tough times — and he’s come out better because of everything he’s gone through. He’s a young man who graduated last spring, he’s stood for everything that’s right about our program with his ability to face adversity and to come out better from it. When you get that quality and then you get a guy who’s played football games and has been impactful in almost every game that he’s played in and has only gotten better as his career has grown. Then what you’re seeing is you’re seeing a product of what you hope Iowa State football really looks like. Lawrence gives our program so much. The fact that he’s a three-year starter at our boundary-safety spot, that’s great. But the fact he is who he is and what he stands for and how he empowers the young people and the older people in our program and how he leads, that’s really powerful. Those are things that leave a legacy and Lawrence has put himself in a great position to leave a really special legacy here. He’s certainly made our program much better because of who he is and what he stands for.”