Why Devin White is the Buccaneers’ antidote for Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs quarterback may be out of this galaxy but — as old LSU teammates explain — this ass-kicking, playmaking linebacker could wreck Super Bowl LV.

There’s a so-called “unspoken rule” at LSU. It’s understood the moment you survive the initial crucible of hitting drills as a freshman. If you choose to stick this out — if you stay in Baton Rouge instead of transferring to calmer waters — then you better know one thing.

Allow JaCoby Stevens, an LSU safety going pro this spring, to explain.

“Playing on an LSU defense means something,” Stevens says. “Every day is a competition. Of course we’re all friends and we hang out off the field. But it’s an unspoken rule: When we’re on the field, we’re trying to embarrass one another.”

Adds former LSU running back Nick Brossette: “It’s different, man. It’s intense. High energy. Everything. You’ve got to come with your best game because everybody is coming to compete. Down here, we call the practice field the ‘Ponderosa.’ It’s time to go to work.”

That’s why the hits will always sting a little more down here. And that’s why NFL scouts know that if it’s a grimy, unapologetic, tenacious ass-kicker their defense needs, this is where you’re posted up most of the fall. Because these football practices take you back in time.

Here, friends destroy each other. Embarrass each other.

And, of course, nobody did more embarrassing than Devin White. Nobody turned these practices into spectacles quite like this linebacker and captain.

“Hitting people. Knocking offensive linemen off,” Stevens recalls. “Devin is one of the hardest practice players who ever came through LSU. He set the standard for how practice should be run. Everything was full speed. You could never say that Devin took a play off. Not in the game, nor in practice.”

“He was the tone-setter. He was the vocal leader.”

Which is why Stevens also credits White for LSU’s national title in 2019, even though White was off to the NFL by then. That’s how much of an impact White left on the program. He didn’t just set the tone for the linebacker group or the defense. He set a tone for everyone in an LSU uniform because his day-to-day norm became everybody’s norm.

Now, with the Buccaneers, White is having the same exact effect.

Now, he is this team’s best shot at dethroning the greatest player in the world.

Devin White needs to embarrass somebody on Super Bowl Sunday.

Let’s all face it, people: Patrick Mahomes isn’t going anywhere. We may be on the precipice of a Michael Jordan-like takeover where all other quarterbacks trapped in this era are basically Drexler and Barkley and Ewing and Malone and Mourning. Honestly, would anybody here be shocked if Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs reeled off four or five Super Bowls in a row? Hell, this may be a minimum eight-peat situation. Mahomes and the Chiefs announced to the world moments after Super Bowl No. 1 that they fully intended to win this game again… and again… and again. I tend to think they will, too. But if there is one player for one game capable of wrecking this inevitability, it’s White. It’s the 2019 fifth overall pick who’s 6 feet tall, 237 pounds, runs a 4.42 and has been virtually shot out of that pirate cannon at Raymond James Stadium all season long.

White elevated his game to a whole other level this season.

He has 10-plus tackles in 10 games this season.

He sacked the QB nine times from his inside linebacker position. Extremely rare.

He makes the sort of plays that cannot be quantified in a box score. White was undoubtedly the best player on the field in Tampa Bay’s divisional playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, drilling everything that moves sideline to sideline. His interception with seven minutes to go essentially won the game, too, and allowed White to relive a little high school glory, too. As a senior at North Webster (La.), White rushed for 1,650 yards and 31 touchdowns on 208 carries. What a perfect opportunity this pick was to unleash a cruel stiff-arm on poor Marquez Callaway.

He will smack your quarterback given the opportunity.

Just ask Derek Carr…

He closes faster than any linebacker in the game. The five-yard gain closes to a five-yard loss in a blink.

Nobody in their right mind is expecting the Buccaneers to actually stop Mahomes. Not for four quarters. The San Francisco 49ers came close a year ago — Mahomes had a 48.2 passer rating in the Super Bowl with 8:33 to go. Nothing was going right. He was knocked off his spot for a solid 3 ½ quarters. Then, he detonated. He played perfect at the perfect time, hitting Tyreek Hill for 44 yards on third and 15 and Sammy Watkins for 38 yards to tee up a pair of touchdowns. The 49ers had a brilliant gameplan and the 49ers played about as well as any defense could.

For most of the game, anyways.

Against this level of quarterback, we all need to view defensive football through a totally different lens. It’s less about holding Mahomes to “X” amount of yards or “X” passer rating and more about making the momentum-nuking play in that Hill moment, that Watkins moment i.e. the kind of play White has been making all season long.

Because in the new NFL, one play is all it takes.

Few remember or care that Tom Brady shredded the Philadelphia Eagles for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards in 2017, but that image of Brandon Graham strip-sacking him for Philly’s first turnover of the game? That’s forever preserved in Super Bowl lore. Nobody remembers that Matt Ryan was so, so close to putting the cherry on top of one of the greatest seasons ever for a quarterback in 2016. But when he was sacked and stripped by Dont’a Hightower, with 8:24 left, an epic comeback became real for New England.

The floodgates opened.

There is no legend of 28-3 without Hightower.

And, hey, there’s Malcolm Butler in 2014. His interception at the goal line is still haunting Seattle.

More likely than not, Mahomes will go off. That’s just how it goes. But defensive coordinator Todd Bowles absolutely knows that all it’ll take in this likely shootout is that critical turnover at that critical moment for Tampa Bay to win its first Super Bowl since 2002. And those who’ve been around White believe he is Graham and Hightower and Butler rolled into one. He is that player capable of flipping the Super Bowl script.

No question, White is spending these two weeks wisely. He’ll find a blind spot in the quarterback’s game.

“It’s Patrick Mahomes,” Stevens says, “but Patrick Mahomes still has tendencies. What I know about Devin White is he’s going to try to figure those tendencies out. And he’s going to try to exploit them. It’s the NFL. Any team can be beat any given Sunday. Devin is going to figure out how to beat the Chiefs this last game.

“If Patrick Mahomes has a weakness, I know Devin is going to do everything he can to find it and exploit it.”

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To his credit, White sure sounded equally confident throughout his animated Super Bowl press conference this week.

The name of the horse people might’ve seen in a video he posted? “Artistic Dream,” and she is currently in foal with his stallion. If the Buccaneers win the Super Bowl? White doesn’t care. He promised to ride a horse around Raymond James Stadium and hold that trophy high. For all 45 minutes, White was about as loose as you’ll see any 22-year-old before a Super Bowl. He pointed, first, to his “game-changing plays” when asked where he has elevated his game Year 1 to Year 2. And White corrected himself mid-sentence in saying that he sets the tempo not just for the defense rather, “the whole team.”

Exactly as he did at LSU.

Yeah, the Chiefs beat Tampa Bay earlier this season but the linebacker says there’s a reason they scored 20 points in that game’s first 30 minutes and only seven in the final 30. Bowles made adjustments and, now, Bowles has a full two weeks to gameplan. He didn’t sound too concerned about this KC juggernaut, adding “Todd Bowles is the key to everything.”

Of course, White is the player Bowles unleashes with the most unbridled creativity. As two legit threats storm off the edge — Shaquil Barrett (eight sacks, 42 pressures) and Jason Pierre-Paul (9.5 sacks, 22 pressures) — Bowles picks ‘n chooses his spots to send White, to blow games up. White blitzed 91 times in the regular season and it was no accident. He spoke this into existence.

Said White: “That’s everybody’s ultimate dream: To take the quarterback down and get up and celebrate. I told Coach Bowles in the off-season that I felt he had to use me a lot more than he did last year, and that was just the simple fact that my game is all-around.”

Bowles obliged, so here the Bucs are. White is the source of unpredictability in this defense. As the linebacker pointed out, he didn’t blitz against the Packers because Tampa Bay needed him in coverage. Barrett took down Aaron Rodgers three times that day.

“So when my number’s called,” White continued, “I’ve got to be screaming like a bat out of hell to get there because it might not get called again.

“This game, I might have to go. This game, Lavonte (David) might have to go. We just never know. It’s always when you get into the flow of the game. But I think everything works for me because of the level of intensity I play with and having the guys around me to help me get one-on-one’s as well, when I pass rush.”

It should be noted, too, that the Chiefs’ offensive line is decimated by injury.

You can absolutely rationalize a Bucs upset with White as the tip of the spear exposing back-ups along the line.

Which truly is remarkable considering the position he plays. Teams typically get by on the cheap at inside linebacker in today’s NFL with retread vets and fourth-round picks. As a rule of thumb, you simply do not draft players at this position very high. Since Wake Forest’s Aaron Curry busted as a fourth overall pick in 2009, no inside linebacker was even drafted in the top 5 until 2019. Until White.

No doubt, this was a colossal risk for a general manager already under fire for taking Jameis Winston No. 1 overall. But next to acquiring quarterback Tom Brady, drafting White this high, right at No. 5 overall, has been Jason Licht’s best roster move. It’s early, obviously, but one could even make the case that White has had as much of an instant impact on this team as anyone in that draft. It’s not too complicated: You simply do not see 240-pounders who move and hit and lead like this, Stevens says. As this LSU teammate puts, White is simply “all about being dominant.”

White has the “guts” and “intelligence” to pull the trigger and attack the ball carrier in real time.

To Stevens, the linebacker’s final season at LSU was “perfect.” Each Saturday he did something that totally changed the complexion of the game and it was all rooted in an obsession.

White attacked every single day as if it was a game.

“Practices, meetings, even walkthroughs. It was a game,” says Stevens. “Everybody sees that he has a high motor. He’s willing to do anything to be better and be the greatest linebacker in the game. You could tell him to go do a handstand on the wall — and explain to him how that’s going to help him on the field — and he’ll go do that handstand on the wall. He’s obsessed with getting better.”

“With Devin, if you show him how this could help him become the best linebacker of all-time, his ears are open. He’s willing to do whatever it takes. He’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL, if not the best.”

Brossette agrees and Brossette would know. He was the player bashing into White most often during those savage LSU practices. One-on-one tackling drills. One-on-one pass rushing drills. One-on-one routes. Everything. A bruising 220-pound back in his own right, Brossette assures both players got their licks in — “iron sharpens iron,” he says.

Off the field, they were friends. On it, it was war.

White raised the intensity of everyone.

“Devin was a great leader, on and off the field,” Brossette says. “High energy. He gets everybody going — especially in practice. When he sees everybody down, he picks them up.”

This 2020 season has been about as close to perfect as White could’ve hoped for, too.

It certainly helps to have a nine-year vet like Lavonte David next to him. This Bucs defense is piloted by two linebackers who can get everybody on the same page — White described it as having two coaches on the field. You won’t see backs and receivers and tight ends leak free with no defender in sight against Tampa Bay. It’s hard to out-trick these linebackers. There’s practically no botched assignments here. And that’s so important vs. the mastermind that is Andy Reid. If the game is stripped down to raw speed and raw physicality, Tampa Bay will like its chances.

Both inside linebackers can cover a lot of ground, an absolute must against the Chiefs’ track speed.

This week, White’s mind traced back to last summer. He could feel this Super Bowl moment coming fresh off a dreary 7-9 season. Before the Bucs even signed Brady, White told both coach Bruce Arians and Bowles that if they can keep this defense together, “We’re going to be the reason we win it all next year.”

That was his mentality. Now, they’re one win away.

All that stands in their way? Mahomes.

Before the snap, White will stare in the quarterback’s eyes, direct traffic and he may even blitz that “A” gap. Stevens and Brossette are sure that White will know precisely when and how to pounce, too. They saw the insane amount of film work he put in back at LSU.

If anyone can decode the slightest vulnerability in the reigning Super Bowl MVP, it’s White.

“It all boils down to doing the little things,” Brossette says. “I feel like he’s going to be great, he’s going to be fine, he’s going to have a big game.  

“Patrick Mahomes is one of the best. You can’t deny that.”

He pauses.

“But Devin is, too.”

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