TAMPA — From the moment they drafted him last year, the Bucs believed Devin White had qualities that would make him a leader.
And by the time White finished his rookie season, all the signs indicated that the front office was right, that their 21-year-old middle linebacker has the acumen, talent and charisma to lead a promising defense into the future.
“I play this game to be one of the greatest linebackers ever and to be a winner,” White said Sunday after the Bucs’ season finale, “so I’m going to bring everybody with me.”
Where is he going? If the past two months are an indication, it will be someplace special. On Thursday, White received his second consecutive NFL defensive rookie of the month award. Since the award was introduced in 1996, only four other players have earned it in consecutive months: former Florida Gators defensive end Jevon Kearse (1999), Kendrell Bell (2001), Dwight Freeney (2002) and Brian Cushing (2009).
In four December games, White totaled 22 tackles, three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one defensive touchdown. That’s the kind of production the Bucs imagined when they made him the fifth overall pick in April. It’s not what they got early in the season.
White played through tonsillitis in his NFL debut against the 49ers despite having lost 10 pounds because swallowing was so painful he barely ate and needed a minor procedure. Six plays into Game 2 at Carolina, White injured his left knee.
He missed the next three games, including the Oct. 6 game in New Orleans that brought dozens of White’s friends and family from his home, Cotton Valley, La.
“I feel like I took away from the team,” White said. “I wasn’t helping the team when I wasn’t playing because I wasn’t out there. I wasn’t able to talk; my voice wasn’t as loud as it was when I got on the field.
“I know this team can go as far as I go.”
When White returned, in Week 6 against the Panthers, his speed was hindered by a bulky knee brace. While most players were nearing midseason form, he was just learning about the speed of the NFL game. He had a valuable mentor in veteran middle linebacker Lavonte David.
Not coincidentally, as White found his footing, so did the Bucs defense.
According to a metric developed by statistics website Pro Football Focus, White’s cumulative overall grade for the final five games was 66.3, compared to 43.3 for his first six games. White’s mark for the last five games ranked third among rookie linebackers who played at least 50 percent of the 350 defensive snaps he played over that stretch. His pass-coverage grade of 82.4 was the best.
“To watch him the last six weeks, we got what we were looking for,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We got a great player and someone that should be in the Pro Bowl for years to come.”
In the Bucs’ 28-11 win at Jacksonville in Week 13, White intercepted his first pass and returned a fumble for a touchdown. He had another fumble return for a touchdown — a 91-yard return — in Sunday’s loss to Falcons. He finished the season with three forced fumbles — he should have had a fourth against the Titans in Week 8 after snuffing out a fake field goal, but a premature whistle ruled the ballcarrier down — and four fumble recoveries.
“There’s not a lot of rookies who have done what he’s done,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He just has to continue to get better, but the fact that he’s getting his hands on balls and being around the ball and making some impact plays can only help us.”
Not only is White the first defensive rookie to return two fumbles for touchdowns since New York Yanks defensive end Art Tait it 1951, he also is one of four players since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to force at least three fumbles and recover four as a rookie. All three of the other players — linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive back Bennie Blades and linebacker Jack Del Rio — went to at least one Pro Bowl.
White is less concerned about that history. He plans on blazing his own path and leading the Bucs defense.
“I can make sure the defense is on point,” he said. “This year I kind of sat back, especially when the injury came, and then I started finding my way back into that big leadership role, but now it’s full (steam) ahead.
“I’m going into Year 2. It’s no more of that, ‘Hey, rookie this, rookie that.’ It’s going out there and do the job, and if you see somebody slacking, make sure you pick them up and bring them along with you.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow @EddieInTheYard.