TAMPA — Linebacker State University, or LSU for short, is where players at football’s toughest position are poured out freely and in large quantities like bourbon in the bayou.
You have to marvel at the recent lineage of linebackers from Baton Rouge to Tampa Bay alone.
Kwon Alexander, Kendell Beckwith and Kevin Minter were all former LSU backers on the Bucs roster last season. Deion Jones, a second round pick in 2016, is roaming the middle for the Falcons.
So naturally, after losing Alexander to the 49ers in free agency, the Bucs headed back to Linebacker State U to replace him.
And here’s the Bucs belief: Devin White may be the best of them all.
The Bucs selected White with the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday. The only surprising thing was how absolutely unsurprising it was.
Any analyst worth his mock draft had the Bucs and White at No. 5.
But the Raiders threw the Bucs a curve a No. 4 when they selected Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell. That left White and Kentucky defensive end Josh Allen, who was second in the FBS with 17 sacks last season and the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
The Bucs didn’t flinch. Despite the enhanced value of an edge pass rusher such as Allen, they didn’t reconsider taking White.
"Devin White was our guy,'' general manager Jason Licht said. "There were some good players still but...Devin White. We went through that exercise for the last however many weeks that if this scenario came up that we were still going to take Devin.
At 6-foot, 238-pounds, White is bigger and faster than Alexander, who was a fourth-round pick in the Bucs vaunted 2015 draft class.
White’s production at LSU was undeniable. The Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best college linebacker recorded 256 tackles, 26 ½ for loss, with seven sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception.
Sure, the Bucs could’ve gone with a defensive lineman, especially with the murky status of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is expected to eventually be traded or released.
And Tampa Bay could’ve used another edge rusher like Allen with Jason Pierre-Paul at 30 and Carl Nassib set to become a free agent next season. Pierre-Paul became the first Bucs player since Simeon Rice in 2005 to record double-digit sacks in a season for the Bucs when he finished with 12.5 in 2018.
Oh, but linebacker was by far the biggest need on a defense that allowed 29 points per game last season, especially with the departure of Alexander.
Think about it. Lavonte David is a Pro Bowl player but is 29 and entering his eighth season and has missed five games in the last two years. After that, it’s a bunch of guys on one year deals. Minter, a former second-round pick by Bruce Arians with the Arizona Cardinals, was cut last season by the Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who is now the Bucs defensive coordinator.
Deone Buccannon, a free agent from the Cardinals, signed a one-year deal. And Beckwith, who spent last year on the non-football injury list, has never recovered from an ankle injury he sustained as a passenger in a car accident a year ago.
It’s rare for an off the ball linebacker to be selected in the top 10. Only four have gone that high since 2010: Rolando McClain (2010), Luke Kuechly, Anthony Barr (2014) and Roquan Smith (2018).
White felt he belonged in that group. He’s the first linebacker to be taken by the Bucs in the first round since Derrick Brooks in 1995. And he’s also not worried about filling Alexander’s cleats. Of all the linebackers to come to the NFL from LSU, he’s the only one to win the Butkus Award and be a two-time captain as a sophomore.
"I never played with Kwon, but we’ve always been active, fellow Tigers, LSU,'' White said. "But we’re always talking. He gave me little pointers. Just be yourself. What got you here, it will keep you here. Just keep getting better at your craft. Me taking over the role from Kwon? I don’t really look at it like that. It’s me coming to the role as Devin White. It’s Devin White’s role and I don’t really feel his departure made a big deal. I feel like it was destined for me and I’m just excited to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.''
Thursday’s first round began to play out the way the Bucs believed it would. The Arizona Cardinals selected Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray No. 1 overall, despite having taken UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen in the first round a year ago.
The 49ers went with Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa. At No. 3, the Jets went with Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and the Raiders chose Ferrell.
The Bucs hadn’t taken a defensive end in the first round of the draft since Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn in 2011.
Though Allen was tempting, they went with a precocious 21-year-old player who is mature enough to be the quarterback of Bowles’ defense for many years to come.
"It’s a special trait you don’t see very often,'' Licht said. "I know at LSU, coach (Ed) Orgeron, they don’t just hand that out. You’ve got to trust the player that he’s going to have a handle on the entire team, which he did. And they met often. He was like an extra coach there.''
White is a colorful player, a guy who loves helping children and owns seven horses. He’s been riding since he was 5 years old. His favorite, Daisy May, will be coming to Tampa Bay with him eventually.
“One day when I was five years old, I am from a very small town and guys ride up and down the street every day, and I flagged some guys down and ask if I could ride,'' White said. ”I fell in love with it. At 5 o’clock the next morning, I was knocking on their door and asking to ride again. I begged my mom for a horse, and she said no. I got my grandfather to give me $500 and I went and bought a horse myself. I kept it at someone else’s house and been riding every since then. I still have that horse to this very day.''
So which horses will he bring with him to Tampa Bay?
"Daisy May is coming. Overdrive is coming and Tailor Made is coming. My three babies,'' White said. "We’ll be there and we’ll be ready to roll. Tampa Bay Bucs got all my time. I’m going to give them everything I got and I’m going to tend to my family as well such as my horses I’m talking about and it’s going to be a great time.''
When White arrived for his visit with the Bucs, he said he felt at home. "He said it just felt right with him here in Tampa,'' Licht said. "And he had a brother who was a big Bucs fan. He had a Bucs jersey as a kid and wore that all the time.
"I remember sitting around with him with a bunch of guys upstairs talking about, ‘Hey, we just want an impact guy to come in here and turn this around’ He said, "Turn what around? We’re all undefeated right now. There’s no reason we can’t get to the Super Bowl. He’s just got that mindset.''
When White was still available at No. 5, he knew he was going to the Bucs.
“When I was on my top 30 visit, when I sat down with coach Licht and we had a heart-to-heart conversation,'' White said. "He really got to know me as a person. We really didn’t talk ball and that speaks volumes for a GM, once he wants to know about that. Then when I got into the meeting with coach Bruce, he did the same exact thing and he was telling me how around Tampa Bay, they’re real big on children because they know I got a real soft heart for kids. So it’s just crazy and I just know. And then coach Bruce told me, ‘D, you’re a hell of a player. You are in play to be taken really, really early, and if you’re there at five, I want you on my team. I want to help develop you.' And when he said that, he was a man of his word. I was there at five and I knew the call was coming in.'’
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.