TAMPA — Devin White knows they’re just a text message away, willing to help. The Bucs’ rookie first-round pick has a bevy of former LSU linebackers he can turn to for advice, whether it’s former Buc and current 49er Kwon Alexander, or current Tampa Bay teammate Kevin Minter or Falcons linebacker Deion Jones.
He has a special relationship with Jones.
“That’s big bro,” White said. “We text all the time.”
White said Jones has already texted him, calling dibs for his jersey Sunday after the game.
As much as White draws comparisons to linebacker greats like Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis — and as much as White himself would prefer to blaze his own path — it is Jones who is probably the player he’d best emulate, at least in the short term.
Jones wasn’t a top-five overall pick like White, but the Falcons gave him responsibilities rarely doled out to a rookie after he was taken out of LSU in the second round in 2016.
The transition from college to the pros for linebackers might be one of the most difficult in the game. They have to quarterback the defense, and they must adjust to the next-level speed quickly not just for their sake, but also that of their teammates.
Jones adjusted quickly. He had 106 tackles and three interceptions, including two for touchdowns, all while relaying the defensive playcalls to the huddle. He quickly became the defensive pulse of a Falcons team that would head to the Super Bowl.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn remembers a moment midway through Jones’ rookie season that told him he was going to be okay.
“I can clearly remember a time,” Quinn said. “And maybe (Bucs defensive coordinator) Todd (Bowles) has felt it already with Devin, where ordinarily you’re over with the guys and talking with the alerts. And there was one time where he kind of arm barred (linebackers coach) Jeff Ulbrich, (and said), ‘Get out of my ear, I’ve got it.’”
“He was the signal caller for us in the huddle and we were trying to work forward through communication as much as we could. It’s difficult to lead as a rookie (because) you’re trying to earn all this trust and respect from your teammates, but what you can do is play really well. And then the communication piece gets stronger and stronger. But there’s probably (that) moment in a November or December practice when I knew we were making some progress.”
“I’m sure there’s been some examples like that with Devin. In our draft process and getting to know him, you kind of had a sense of his personality and what he was like. He’s definitely somebody who’s going to have a huge future in our league.”
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The Bucs opened the season with White relaying the defensive signals, but recently turned that duty over to veteran Lavonte David. But White has definitely showed the leadership the Bucs desire.
White missed nearly four games with a knee injury, but has quickly established himself as a volume tackler — he is averaging 9.2 tackles a game since returning — who has a knack for stripping the ball. White has two forced fumbles in five games since returning and should have had another from when he sniffed out a fake field-goal attempt against the Titans.
When rookie cornerback Jamel Dean was an emergency addition to the starting lineup following an injury to starter Carlton Davis before this month’s game in Seattle, White called the group of rookies together and told them this was the reason the Bucs drafted them.
“Every week (he’s growing),” Bowles said. “We see flashes all the time in practice. He’s playing faster in the games. He’s had some big hits. Obviously, we need more of them. As he grow mentally and the faster he plays, we see the progress every week
Jones followed up his rookie season with a trip to the Pro Bowl. Last year, he missed 10 games with an injury. This season, the Falcons struggled to a 1-7 start before winning back-to-back games after making defensive adjustments over their bye week.
“We talk about winning right away,” White said of Jones. “His rookie year they went to the Super Bowl and they’ve kind of been struggling a little bit. Kind of the same boat I’m in right now. I love the game tremendously so I call and get tips from him, but at the end of the day I’m trying to be my own person. I’m trying to create my own lane in the NFL and just try to do what I do best, and that’s be a hell of a player.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.