TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Before they were teammates at Florida State, Marquez White and Nate Andrews were first competitors on the high school football field in their home state of Alabama. It was Oct. 26, 2012, when Andrews’ Fairhope Pirates hosted White’s Dothan-Northview Cougars. Andrews hadn’t yet met White, but White’s reputation – he had verbally committed to Florida State a few months before – and his highlight tapes preceded him.
“They showed us a film of (White) just knocking a kid out – completely demolishing a kid,” Andrews said. “Everybody was afraid. I was kind of intimidated at first. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play against this guy.’”
Down the road, White, a cornerback who spurned home-state power Alabama to pledge for the Seminoles, looked forward to the matchup: himself a 6-foot-1, 170-pound defensive back against Andrews, who, at 6-foot, 193 pounds, primarily played receiver.
The two were sure to see each other all night.
Turns out they did, just not in the way that White expected.
An injury to one of Fairhope’s quarterbacks and a suspension to another had the Pirates desperate for a signal-caller. And they found one in Andrews.
He had played some quarterback in middle school, but never expected to see himself there at the high-school level.
Apparently, neither did Northview because, according to all sides, Andrews ran through the defense all night.
“You can go back and look at the game – he killed us,” White said. “Very bad.”
With Andrews leading the huddle, the Pirates ran the triple-option on virtually every play.
All Andrews had to do was read the defense and decide whether to hand the ball off up the middle, pitch it to another running back or keep it himself and take off.
More often than not, he kept it. And, more often than not, he scored.
“It seemed like every time he pulled the ball he scored,” White said. “Whether it was 50-, 60-, 70-yard runs.”
Andrews that night ran for 268 yards and eight touchdowns.
Well, seven touchdowns.
“I scored eight,” Andrews said with a laugh, “but one called got back.”
Final score: Andrews’ Pirates 58, White’s Cougars 23.
“I told him I tried to hurt him one time,” White joked. “I tried to horse-collar him really bad. Because I was tired of him running. I’m in man (coverage) and every time I look back he’s running down the opposite sideline and I’d have to go chase him.
“I’m glad he’s on my team now.”
Shortly thereafter, Andrews and White traded in their high school uniforms for garnet and gold, and they’ve since been pillars of the Florida State defense for the last three seasons.
As two of just four senior defenders for FSU DeMarcus Walker and Justin Shanks are the others – Andrews and White are part of small club of Seminole defenders who have national-championship experience.
Now, as they enter their last seasons in Tallahassee, each is looking to finish his collegiate career the way it started: with a title.
“Nate and ‘Quez work their behinds off and they’re confident in what they do,” Walker said. “My hat goes off to them because they’ve come a long way. Those are great football players and they’re going to have long careers.”
‘A great experience’
Andrews is a three-year starter who played a key role on FSU’s 2013 national title team and has appeared in all 41 games that the Seminoles have played during his career.
But, three years ago, his journey to college football nearly ended before it even began.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play college football or not,” Andrews said. “Because I, low-key, wanted to go to the army.”
Andrews has two cousins in the service but otherwise doesn’t come from a military background. As he entered his senior year Fairhope, though, he hadn’t attracted much attention from Division I football recruiters.
And to a kid who grew up in the heart of south Alabama, over the bridge and down the road from Mobile, the army sounded preferable to junior college.
“(Joining the military), that’s a good thing to do,” Andrews said. “I don’t want to be stuck at home. I’ll either do that or go to college and play football.”
Andrews’ future aspirations took a major turn when he started garnering extra attention from Jeremy Pruitt, who at the time was an assistant at Alabama but would soon become the defensive coordinator at FSU.
Pruitt, himself an Alabama native, had known Andrews for a while. And, although Andrews had yet to generate much buzz in the recruiting world, Pruitt thought that Andrews’ physical style and raw athletic ability (remember those eight touchdowns) would be a good fit for Florida State.
“Coach Pruitt was like, ‘Look, I want you to come to Florida State and just check it out.’ And I came down here and I enjoyed it.
“You know how everybody always says ‘Oh, it’s a family’ – it is. I thought the guys were cool. (Former FSU DB) Lamarcus Brutus was the first one that talked to me. … ever since then it’s been a great experience and I’m glad I came here.”
For Florida State, the feeling is mutual.
All it took was a glance at the roster for Andrews to figure he wouldn’t be seeing much of the field that fall.
“I was maybe the fourth string,” Andrews said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to play this year. I’m definitely going to get redshirted.’”
A few injuries early in the season forced Pruitt to shuffle his lineup and forced Andrews on to the field.
Suddenly, the kid who just a few months before was thinking about joining the army was playing a major part on a national championship-level defense.
Splitting time between safety and “money” back – FSU’s term for a sixth defensive back – Andrews led the Seminoles with four interceptions and also forced three fumbles.
And in the BCS National Championship Game, Andrews posted four tackles as the Seminoles held on for a 34-31 victory over Auburn.
“Sometimes things happen,” Andrews said. “I ended up getting a chance to play and I thank God for that.”
Since then, Andrews has remained one of the leaders on FSU’s defense. He again topped the Seminoles with three interceptions as a sophomore and, despite battling through injuries for much of the following season, was still productive as a junior.
‘I know I can play’
White’s decision to come to Florida State can be traced back to two key figures.
The first one is an obvious choice. Given the wealth of quality defensive backs to come through FSU in the past few years, it comes as no surprise that one would resonate with White.
“I remember seeing Greg Reid on TV,” White said. “When I saw him in person, I was like, ‘Dang, this is where I want to be.’”
The second, though, isn’t quite as apparent.
White grew up a two-sport star in Dothan, Ala., splitting equal time between the football field and the basketball court.
And when a Dothan hoops standout named Xavier Gibson made his way to Tallahassee, White aspired to follow in his steps.
Gibson reached four NCAA tournaments with the Seminoles and left in 2012 as part of the winningest senior class in school history.
“That’s why I wanted to come here, because of (Gibson),” White said. “I grew up looking up to ‘Xay,’ seeing all the attention he had. I was like, ‘I want to be like him.’”
Which meant saying, ‘No thanks,’ to an offer from the Alabama Crimson Tide and instead leaving his home state.
Coming from a family of Alabama fans, White didn’t make that decision lightly.
“My family wanted me to keep that tradition, that legacy going,” White said. “But I decided to be different.”
White arrived in Tallahassee with big plans: Although he signed with the Seminoles on a football scholarship, he would split time between the football team and the men’s basketball team.
Or, more accurately, he would be a full-time football player and a full-time basketball player.
Yes, that’s as difficult as it sounds.
“I had no social life my freshman year,” White said. “Even after the (2013) championship game, everybody was out celebrating. Two days later, I’m on the basketball court.
“It was a lot, but I enjoyed it.”
It didn’t take long, though, for White to come to a stark realization – with so many talented defensive backs on the roster, it would take a total commitment just to compete for playing time.
That meant choosing, once and for all, to focus exclusively on football.
So, prior to the 2014-15 season, White informed FSU basketball coach Leonard Hamilton that he wouldn’t be coming back.
“Coach Ham, he wanted me to come back and play basketball,” White said. “But … he understood.”
White’s decision didn’t pay immediate dividends. With Darby and Williams holding starting spots in 2014, White was limited to reserve duty and special teams, and he finished the season with just three tackles.
The next season, however, was a different story.
Darby and Williams were both gone and, although the All-American Ramsey was a natural choice to fill their shoes at one position, the Seminoles seemed to have a gaping hole at the other.
So in stepped White.
After two seasons of relative anonymity, White earned a starting spot at one of the most difficult – and difficult to hide – positions on the defense.
“Me sitting and waiting until my junior year, there was a lot of ‘what-ifs’ from myself,” White said.
Those what-ifs were answered by Ramsey, who before the 2015 season stood up in a team meeting and challenged White to reach the standard set by FSU’s previous cornerbacks.
“He said, ‘Dude we came in together. I know how great you can be. I see how you work. You’ve just got to believe in yourself,’” White said.
“Him giving me that, that kind of pushed me. Sometimes that’s what you need.”
White responded in kind, turning in a junior year that was half pleasant surprise, half revelation.
He started each of FSU’s 13 games and allowed completions on just 32.1 percent of the passes thrown his way.
And despite entering the season as a potentially inviting target for quarterbacks looking to avoid Ramsey, the secret soon got out, and White finished the season having been thrown at on just seven percent of throws from the opposition.
“I got in that first game, that second game and the third game, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m a baller,’” White said with a smile. “I know I can play.’”
‘It’s up to us’
Now seniors, Andrews and White are anchors on a Florida State defense that expects to be the Seminoles’ best since 2013.
The Seminoles started the season ranked No. 4 in the country and, thanks to that defense, as well as an offense that boasts one of the country’s most dynamic players in running back Dalvin Cook, they’re on the short list of favorites to make the College Football Playoff.
As far as Andrews and White are concerned, that’s the way it should be.
The pair won a national title as freshmen and, although they’ve been close in the years that have followed – FSU has lost just four games during the last three seasons combined – they have yet to scale the mountain again.
Andrews and White know that this is their last chance to win another ring, and, along with their fellow seniors, are entering their final seasons at Florida State with a shared goal: to finish how they started.
“I know what it takes. Me, DeMarcus, Marquez, guys like that, we know what it takes to win,” Andrews said. “That’s what we’re trying to put in the younger guys’ heads, so we can win another national championship.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to us. It’s up to the leaders. (Fisher) can coach so much, but at the end of the day, it’s up to us.”