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Why rookie Devin White is stamped for stardom

It’s been a long time since this much was expected from a Bucs defensive player this soon.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) runs drills at the AdventHealth Training Center on the first day of training camp on July 26, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jul. 27
Updated Jul. 27

TAMPA — The sticker with the green dot signifies which helmet gets communications from the offensive or defensive coordinator.

The starting quarterback’s headgear is so stamped. Usually the middle linebacker will have it on defense, though relaying plays in the huddle can be done by anyone.

But NFL coaches who want to get into a player’s head have a direct line.

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Rookie Devin White, the green but growing Bucs first-round pick from LSU, knew nothing about the designation until head coach Bruce Arians approached him after three days of training camp for rookies last week.

“He said, ‘The vets are coming (Thursday), and I’m going to put the green dot on your helmet,’ ’’ White said. “I didn’t know what the green dot was then. Once I put the helmet on, I heard (defensive coordinator) Todd (Bowles) talking through the helmet, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, they did put a lot of responsibility on me.’ But I feel like I asked for it and I can handle it.’’

When was the last time a Bucs defensive player has been so stamped for stardom as White? And of those players, who had the responsibility and abundant expectations for turning around the worst defense in the league?

Gerald McCoy was the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, but he spent most of his rookie season injured and the Bucs still finished 10-6.

Warren Sapp, arguably the draft’s best player in 1995, slipped to No. 12 overall amid news of a failed drug test. He and Derrick Brooks, who went 28th in the same draft, played out of position as rookies. Both went on to win the Super Bowl for the 2002 season and slip on gold jackets as first-ballot selections for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Before he takes a snap in the NFL, White already has drawn comparisons to linebackers Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis, who combined to appear in 20 Pro Bowls. Lewis is another first-ballot Hall of Fame player.

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So here comes White, who turned 21 in February, charged with setting the Bucs’ tone and becoming the quarterback of the defense.

If he lived up to all those expectations, White would be the league’s defensive rookie of the year; lead the Bucs in sacks, interceptions and tackles; start in the Pro Bowl, and get his face on the cover of Madden 2020.

But here’s the thing: Almost nobody in football is saying some of those expectations may be unrealistic.

“As long as he stays healthy, he will live up to it,’’ said former Bucs defensive tackle Booger McFarland, a member of ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew and who played at LSU. “He has the rare combination of being a great player, blessed with supreme athleticism, a (strong) work ethic … and to me, the best part is he is humble beyond belief. When you put all that together, an injury is the only thing that can stop him.’’

White’s coach at LSU, Ed Orgeron, in one of the people who has compared White to Lewis and Willis. Orgeron coached on the staffs when Lewis was at Miami and Willis was at Ole Miss, which means almost nobody is as qualified as he is to make that comparison.

The exciting thing for the Bucs is that White embraces the starring role. What may seem incomprehensible to some is an achievable goal to him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) stands next to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles at the AdventHealth Training Center on the first day of training camp on July 26, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. MONICA HERNDON | Times

“That’s definitely the end goal, what (Lewis and Willis) got to,’’ White said. “And right now, if you just based it off college, what they did in college and what I did in college, I feel like I’m right there with them. But I don’t feel like it’s my place to speak on it because when the college Hall of Fame comes out, I’m not the one voting on it. And I don’t like to think so far as a gold jacket. I mean, that’s the end result, but I see many Super Bowls and team-winning events that come before it.

“I’m going to be the best Devin White I can be, and the thing about me, I feel like I have a lot of upside to my game.’’

White is not the kind of linebacker that Bucs fans are used to. He’s a little bigger — 6 feet, 237 pounds — with a rare combination of size, speed and agility. He was a running back who gained more than 5,000 yards in high school, so he plays with the agility and vision of a ballcarrier. He can make plays from sideline to sideline but also can be used as an effective inside and outside pass rusher in Bowles’ defense.

Most of the time, coaches try to tamp down the galactic projections for a player taken fifth overall in the draft. Give him time, they’ll say. Don’t buy him a ticket to Canton just yet. But that’s not how Arians and his staff roll when it comes to talking about White.

Inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell had inside information about White. His niece Nikki Fargas is LSU’s women’s basketball coach. White spent a lot of time supporting her team.

“I’ve got two daughters, so I’m a huge women’s basketball fan,” Caldwell said. “Just understand, everyone is not like that, but for (White) to do what he did down there as far as helping the women’s program out, it’s huge. It shows what type of player and person we’re dealing with.’’

Arians has said the Bucs’ rookie class “is the most mature” he has ever been around. It starts with White, but defensive backs Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards also are serious players who could land starting jobs.

“Everything starts with me. It starts in the middle,’’ White said. “I embrace it. If you’re not making plays, nobody is going to follow you. You can do all the talking and everything, but once we get on the field and strap up, they know (No.) 45 is going to be making plays. That’s what I do.

“I feel like everybody respects me, and that’s the thing I’ve got to keep doing, gain everybody’s respect and their trust and let them know I’m all in.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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