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Can Devin White lead the other rookies and the Bucs defense?

Why the Bucs’ last eight games matter: Can White live up to his high draft spot and lead a defensive transformation?

TAMPA ― At some point, it has to become Devin White’s defense.

That’s why the Bucs drafted the middle linebacker from LSU with the fifth overall pick.

He can’t be hurt. He must be heard. The Bucs need his passion and play-making ability.

The second half of the season is about developing the five rookies on defense and White has to not only lead them, but get veterans to follow as well.

“That’s exactly what we drafted him for and expect out of him.’’ Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “We had a long talk last week. When he was out, Lavonte (David) kind of took over. (With Jason Pierre-Paul) coming back, (we told him) ‘Hey, you’re still a vocal part of this. I want your leadership, especially with that young group.’’

The knee sprain White suffered in the Week 2 win at Carolina was a major setback. He did not play in the next three games and was burdened by a knee brace when he returned.

But last Sunday at Seattle, White demonstrated why he has been compared to Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis.

Although he still made mistakes, White led the Bucs with 12 tackles, a half-sack, two quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

White’s highlight hustle play — hunting down Seattle’s Chris Carson and stripping him of the football to prevent a touchdown – was a reminder of his will to be great. White was clocked at 22.8 miles per hour during the chase.

“I can run faster without the brace on,’’ White said.

Only the Miami Dolphins have allowed more than 31.5 points per game than the Bucs. Consider that teams with the top five defenses in the NFL are a combined 33-10 (with six of those losses belonging to the 3-6 Broncos) while the bottom five are 9-31-2.

White’s second-half surge as a play-maker and vocal leader could lead a second-half surge for the Bucs, particularly as his knee improves.

“I just feel like as the weeks keep going, as I keep growing,’’ White said. “Basically I’m not going to say I took steps back, but I need to pick up where I left off and keep going. I knew plays were going to start being made by myself but I’ve got to keep going. I’m finally out of the brace, which is a great thing. But I’ve got to get used to running without the support of the brace.

"But me and Lavonte, we’re going to keep it going because he’s been one of the greatest teachers ever and a great guy to learn from. He’s been like an open book and he’s willing and ready to teach me anytime I need help.’’

Needing the most help is the Bucs secondary, which now boasts three rookie starters: cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards.

In the off-season, Arians declared that the secondary was “fixed.” Now he admits he was fooled.

“You get fooled sometimes in shorts in the spring," Arians said. “... Some of those guys, when the noise level goes up, it all changes too.”

That was initially the case for Sean Murphy-Bunting, the second-round pick from Central Michigan. His deer-in-the-headlights start to the season was an insult to deer. But Murphy-Bunting quickly improved and may now be the Bucs’ most solid cornerback.

Murphy-Bunting had one tackle through the first four weeks until his breakout game in a loss at New Orleans when he recorded four tackles and his first career interception. Last Sunday, he played all 74 of the team’s defensive snaps.

“I honestly would say it’s just a matter of being comfortable, getting back to playing for my true self,’’ Murphy-Bunting said. “It was overthinking things, trying to mimic people that I’ve watched growing up. Not staying true to my game. I’m a guy who likes to play some press corner. I like to play off coverage from time to time. But at the same time, I have to play with the strength of the defense.’’

Injuries also derailed Edwards. He was a ball-hawk who earned the starting safety job out of training camp but has been fighting with a hamstring injury most of the season. He played only one defensive snap at Tennessee and 19 percent last Sunday at Seattle.

With Carlton Davis out with a hip injury, the Bucs will start Dean the second half of the season. Dean had played three snaps prior to Seattle, where he was beaten for three touchdown passes. But he fought hard and led the Bucs with four passes defended to go with five tackles.

“I think it will benefit him a lot mentally, because when he does the right thing, he did it well and as the game went on and it got faster in the fourth quarter, he had some things he’d like to have back that he can learn from an experience standpoint that we’ve been working with him,’’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “So I think that experience will carry him the rest of his career and probably fuel his career.’’

Iowa rookie Anthony Nelson has shown flashes as a pass rusher, but a nagging hamstring injury will force him to miss Sunday’s game vs. the Cardinals.

Five rookies have eight games to turn around the defense and the season for the Bucs. It starts with White. The sooner he is confident enough to take over as the leader of the defense, the better it will become.

“As you get more comfortable at the (middle linebacker) position, the more vocal you get and the more you understand the defense, it kind of naturally takes itself over,’’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He’s kind of in the middle of that now but like you say, he’s getting better every day.’’

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

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