TAMPA — The NFL can humble a rookie, but Devin White’s first pro season only made him more hungry.
As he stood at his locker following the Bucs’ season-ending overtime loss to Atlanta five months ago, the middle linebacker immediately turned the page on his rookie season.
“It’s full (steam) ahead,” White said then. “I’m going into Year 2. It’s no more of that, ‘Hey, rookie this, rookie that.’”
White, still just 22, says now that he saw himself as a rookie in name only.
The Bucs drafted him fifth overall in 2019, and he quickly became the unquestioned leader of the team’s draft class. He told his fellow rookies early on that they were going to be the group that brought the Bucs back to respectability.
“I always wanted to be treated like a vet last year," White said Thursday, "because I always feel like I prepared like a vet.”
The acquisitions of quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski on offense made the Bucs — at least on paper — immediate Super Bowl contenders. But White said he believes the Bucs will go only as far as their defense takes them.
"We want to put the game on our backs,” he said. "We want it to come down to (us).”
The Bucs retained linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul and, later, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency, accomplishing their goal of keeping their defensive front seven together.
Coming off a season in which it owned the league’s best rush defense and made tremendous strides in its young secondary, the unit is perceived as one of the team’s biggest strengths. And White’s dynamic playmaking is one of the reasons why.
Slowed by a knee injury at the beginning of his rookie season, White averaged nearly eight tackles over the final nine games, forced three fumbles, recovered four and returned two for touchdowns — becoming the first rookie defensive player to do so since 1951.
White said he’s focused on becoming a better student of the game this offseason so he can be someone teammates lean on when things get chaotic on the field.
“I know guys that tend to play the best ball usually are the smartest guys on the field, so I want to make sure I’m establishing myself as one of the smartest guys,” White said. "... I just can never get complacent. That’s one thing about me. I study the game. I reach out to a lot of people.
“I’m always trying to find ways to get better, because I know as far as my game, there’s no ceiling. I can keep getting better and better. Somebody is going to find my weakness, and I’m going to have to get better, so I might as well find my own weakness and get better before somebody else does it on Sunday.”
White said the Bucs defense will get even better competing against Brady every day in practice.
“We’re not going to want him to pick us apart every day in training camp,” White said. “We’re going to get better with our disguises, and we’re going to try to confuse him a little. Going against him in practices will really bring our game out to a new level.”
White said he’s not preoccupied with the preseason buzz the Bucs are receiving, whether it’s the sudden national spotlight or five prime-time games. He’s focused on making sure the defense continues to improve.
“There’s little room for error in the NFL," he said. "That’s what I came to realize last season. In college, your athletic ability can make up for a small error, but in the NFL everybody is just as talented as you, so you can’t make up for it. So you have to be 100 percent locked in on your keys and make sure you do everything right.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.