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Is this the year Devin White graduates to superstar status?

The Bucs linebacker has an old school style of play that conjures up some of the game’s greats.
Devin White had a Bucs-high 140 tackles last year, fifth most in the NFL, and his nine sacks led all inside linebackers.
Devin White had a Bucs-high 140 tackles last year, fifth most in the NFL, and his nine sacks led all inside linebackers. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 3, 2021

TAMPA — Devin White spent the offseason finishing his degree at LSU, the fulfillment of a promise he made to his mother.

But he also was engaged in continuing his education at linebacker, where he enlisted the help of several players well-schooled in dominating the position.

A student of the game, White’s favorite linebacker growing up was Ole Miss and 49ers great Patrick Willis.

Like White, Willis is a Southerner, from Bruceton, Tenn. He had a hardscrabble life, growing up with an alcoholic father and having to care for his siblings.

A two-time first-team All-American at Mississippi, Willis was a 2007 first-round draft pick of the 49ers who enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career. He was the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, a five-time All Pro and a seven-time Pro Bowl player.

At 6 feet and 240 pounds, he played with the same skill and passion as White.

“People are always amazed when they ask me who my favorite player was, favorite linebacker, that I watched growing up,” White said of Willis. “I just figure we’ve got similar background stories. Small country kid, and you know, we kind of do the same thing on the field. He was just so dynamic and so explosive in every phase of the game, and that’s where I’m working to get to.

“He’s a guy I leaned on heavy, and he can really relate to me because he can just feel the passion and the energy on the phone, so he don’t mind helping me, talking to me, just giving me tips.”

Willis, 36, said he was impressed by White’s determination to improve.

“One thing that’s going to allow him to set himself apart is finding a way to stay hungry,” Willis said. “When I talked to him, he had that speech about him. He said, ‘Man, I need to be better than I was last year.’ I said, ‘As long as you keep that hunger, the game will open for you.’ "

Devin White puts pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the teams' regular-season meeting in 2020.
Devin White puts pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the teams' regular-season meeting in 2020. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Another mentor for White is retired Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the Bucs’ biggest adversaries during his eight seasons in Carolina, from 2012-19. They share the same agency and have been in contact since White’s rookie year in 2019.

Kuechly was among the league’s best at diagnosing plays, routinely calling them out before perplexed quarterbacks barked the snap count.

“That’s where I’m trying to be, and I got a good feel for him,” White said. “I make a lot of plays on anticipation, just knowing what’s coming. You can always take your game to the next level. I feel like (Kuechly) was the best cover linebacker to ever play the game, and the tape shows (it).”

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White’s note-taking should result in an even better result than his breakout performance in 2020.

“I plan to take all these guys’ game and spice it up and add it to my game,” he said, smiling, “because I come with a lot of flavor already.”

A quick study

White speaks with a country twang he developed growing up in Cotton Valley, La., and his enthusiasm for football and life is as refreshing as a glass of sweet tea on a summer day.

It’s impressive that he is only 23 and already entering his third season in the league. This year he debuted at No. 28 on nfl.com’s list of top 100 players.

But considering his regular-season performance last season — and dominant playoff run — White already might be the league’s best linebacker.

There’s not a better run-to-the-ball defender, which is saying something considering he plays alongside Lavonte David. White led the Bucs last season with 140 tackles, which ranked fifth in the NFL.

Devin White (45) recovers a fumble during the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay.
Devin White (45) recovers a fumble during the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

More impressive, his nine sacks were the most of any player at his position and second on the team to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 9½.

“I want to be very dominant when I’m ready to go,” White said. “I want to make my presence felt in the backfield. I feel like my game is very versatile. And I feel like that’s a great part of my gain.

“I don’t have a goal of double-digit sacks (this year), but if it comes … with me playing hard, playing within the scheme, then I will sure be very appreciative of it.”

At 6 feet and 238 pounds, White has thick shoulders and legs, and runs a remarkable 4.45-second 40-yard dash. Anyone that big and fast shouldn’t be rolling without a license plate. His ability to make plays in the run game and to rush the passer, combined with his improvement as a pass defender, makes him a budding Ray Lewis, without the rap sheet.

“We knew he was special when we got him (fifth overall) in the draft,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “We knew he would have to learn the system and learn the game, but I didn’t expect him to learn it this fast, and he learns it this fast because he loves the game. Devin is not just a game performer; he’s like that at practice. He’s like that at warmups when he jogs. He’s like that all the time.

“That’s just who he is. That’s what makes him so great to be around.”

White missed the last year’s final-regular season game against Atlanta and the NFC wild-card game at Washington after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Devin White (45) runs back a fumble during the division playoff game at New Orleans.
Devin White (45) runs back a fumble during the division playoff game at New Orleans. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

He returned with a vengeance in the division playoff game at New Orleans. In addition to recovering a fumble forced by rookie safety Antoine Winfield to set up a score, White called his shot before making a game-changing interception against Drew Brees.

“I think the game being taken away from me, I think it opened my eyes and allowed me to see how much more the game means to me,” White said. “It meant a lot to me because every day I walk onto the field, I’m so thankful. I want to be able to play the game at a high level, not just be able to go out there and get reps but be a guy. I’m able to be that guy.

“I had so many goals (last year). I wanted to get double-digit sacks. Atlanta was a team I always got sacks on from my rookie year, so I knew that was very achievable. Whatever number of tackles was Lavonte’s most — I think it was (146) — we talked about it. I wanted to beat his tackle total for the year. There was just so much energy that I had (stored) up for not being able to go out there from that last game, and I was healthy. No offense to my guys out there, but you can tell it’s a different kind of energy and life from the game in Washington to the (Saints) game.”

‘Attack and destroy’

White got better with each playoff game, playing like a man possessed.

He had 10 or more tackles in each of his three postseason matchups, including 15 in the NFC Championship Game win at Green Bay. But it was his fourth-quarter interception of the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes in the end zone that sealed the Bucs’ second Super Bowl title.

His postseason stat line: 38 tackles (three for loss), two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

If not for Tom Brady passing for three touchdowns, White easily could have been named Super Bowl 55 MVP after the defense kept the Chiefs’ explosive offense out of the end zone.

Devin White makes an interception on a ball intended for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce during the second half of Super Bowl 55.
Devin White makes an interception on a ball intended for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce during the second half of Super Bowl 55. [ MARK HUMPHREY | Associated Press ]

“When he sees something, he trusts his eyes and explodes to the ball,” Rams tackle and two-time All-Pro Andrew Whitworth said. “And you watch the tape and you’re like, ‘Man, how could he go that fast at somebody and not miss the tackle?’ But he sees, recognizes, and he’s going to attack and destroy.”

White’s speed and recognition in the run game make it virtually impossible to gain the perimeter on the Bucs defense. He will shoot the gap and enter the backfield before the offensive guard can reach him.

“I feel like teams don’t even run toss sweeps against us no more because they know I’m going to track it down,” White said. “I just feel like I bring more to the game than playmaking ability. I feel like I’m exciting to watch because of the energy and passion I bring to the game.”

White conjures up memories of just a handful of inside linebackers who could tackle, rush the passer and cover. When Bruce Arians was asked what player most reminds him of White, the Bucs coach didn’t hesitate.

“Pat Willis would be a good comparison,” the coach said. “He came in and just played the game the way it was supposed to be played from day one. He’s probably the only one in the modern era that I can say that about. There are some kids who might be doing it this year. But none I can say came in and had the impact.”

If he continues on this path, White might graduate to NFL superstar this season.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com or 727-709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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