JACKSONVILLE — If you wanted to know who has made the Bucs’ defense so red hot the past two games, you only had to see the steam coming out of the ears of Devin White after he body-slammed Leonard Fournette to the turf at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday.
The two were teammates at LSU when White was a freshman and Fournette was about to become the fourth overall draft pick in 2017. But after the linebacker’s tackle of the Jaguars running back for no gain in the second quarter, White popped up and popped off to one of the NFL’s most physical players.
“I was just trying to let him know I’m in the league, I’m a big boy now,’’ White said after the Bucs’ 28-11 win.
“I’m not the same freshman from LSU. My game done rose to another level.’’
Before White’s MMA-like take down of Fournette, the rookie had already made the Jaguars tap out.
On his first series Sunday, White recorded his first career interception by stepping in front of a pass intended for Dede Westbrook at the Tampa Bay 32-yard line. That set up the Bucs’ first touchdown.
Then on the Jaguars’ next possession, White scooped up a fumble by quarterback Nick Foles caused by the Bucs’ Shaquil Barrett and returned it 14 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
By the time White walked off the field for the day, he had led a resurgent defense with seven tackles, a quarterback hit, one tackle for loss, two passes defensed, an interception and the fumble recovery for the score.
“It’s my time, I guess,’’ said White, who had two sacks of the Falcons’ Matt Ryan in last week’s victory. “I’ve been set back this year, but I never complained, and I also kept my head down and kept working.
“It’s time for me to show out. It’s time for me to show the world what I can do, and it’s time for me to keep building on it.’’
The Bucs built a 25-0 lead by forcing three turnovers. Their fourth, an interception by rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting in the end zone, snuffed out Jacksonville’s fourth-quarter rally. Murphy-Bunting should’ve taken a knee for a touchback, but he made the mistake of trying to run the ball out and was tackled at the Bucs 3-yard line.
White cleaned that up, too. He essentially ended the game with a fourth-down tackle of Fournette at the Jaguars 19.
“That goes to show you how young we (the defense) are,’’ White said. “We haven’t been put in those situations a lot, and that just shows you how much room we have to grow.’’
It’s maybe not a coincidence that White’s breakout game came in Jacksonville.
The Bucs’ decision to take White with the No. 5 overall pick instead of Kentucky defensive end Josh Allen, who went two picks later to the Jaguars, was highly scrutinized.
Then when White sprained a knee ligament in his second game of the season, the grumbling from Bucs fans grew louder. Allen is a terrific player, and his ninth sack of the season Sunday set a Jaguars rookie record.
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But the way White played Sunday, as a sideline-to-sideline wrecking ball capable of taking over a game the way middle linebackers such as Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis did, is what the Bucs dreamed about when they drafted him.
“He’s a dynamic player,” coach Bruce Arians said. “And he’s really come into his own. You can just see him blossom every week, getting better and better and more confident, more confident.’’
White’s knee injury, which occurred early in the Week 2 win at Carolina, kept him out of all or parts of four games. When he returned, he had to wear a knee brace. He decided to chuck it after two games.
“I told my mom over and over, it’s not a setback, I’m going to pick up right where I left off because I feel like I was doing great all through fall camp,’’ White said.
“I feel like the team thrives off my energy. Because that’s what I always do.’’
Linebacker Lavonte David says he has been re-energized by White. David, who also had seven tackles Sunday, is having a Pro Bowl-worthy season, but he also is serving as a patient mentor for White.
“Every time we go out throughout the week, we always break (the huddle) down on ‘Playmakers!’ ’’ David said. “That’s what we want to be: playmakers. When it’s time, we want to be the guys to make those plays. We got them (Sunday).’’
It had been 364 days since the Bucs had won two games in a row. Nearly a year to the day. Now they’ve won three of their past four.
It was always a matter of the defense — particularly the young secondary — growing up.
White said he has been embarrassed by some of the Bucs’ performances on defense this season. He knows the defense can be better. He is still making the transition from good rookie linebacker to great one. But he has enough fire to ignite a franchise.
“This has to be a mentality for everybody because this is my mentality,’’ White said. “I don’t care who we play. They challenged me all week, ‘Hey, you’re playing a guy you went to school with. He’s one of the best in the league. What (are) you going to do? Are you going to stand up?’
“I was like, ‘Come on, man, that’s what ya’ll got me here for. That’s what I’m used to doing.’ You know, every challenge I’m willing to step up to the plate, and I feel like I hit a home run (Sunday).’’
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud.