The 133 tackles credited to Devin White last season came in all shapes and sizes. Some were bone-jarring collisions that produced a hushed pause from the spectating masses followed by a primitive roar more befitting a gladiatorial spectacle. Others were the last-ditch grab of a ball carrier’s shoestring to prevent a breakaway touchdown.
White became the first player ever to be named Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week four times in a single campaign and made a league-leading 10.2 stops per game in his first season as a starting linebacker.
Now a junior, White is again a First Team All-SEC selection and is a projected first-round pick should he choose to enter the NFL Draft early. He’s the quintessential linebacker for the modern game: sideline-to-sideline range, elite pass rush productivity and — whether you ask him or not — he’ll be the first to let you know that he didn’t allow a completion in man-to-man coverage last season.
So where does a young player with such acclaim set his sights in 2018? 150 tackles would be a nice benchmark not often reached at the college level. The single-season school record of 154, set by Bradie James in 2002, is certainly in play.
In actuality White isn’t worried about making more tackles this season. His primary focus since this spring has been on missing fewer.
“My biggest thing is don’t miss any tackles,” White says. “I missed a lot of tackles last year that I cleaned up over the spring, so my goal is to not miss any tackles. Far as personal goals, besides that, I don’t have any. It’s going to come week in and week out if I just do what Coach (Dave) Aranda asks me.”
White credits that pairing with the man he considers the best defensive mind out there to be the key in his rise to stardom. Once White bought in fully to play linebacker, a dedication he’ll admit took some time, they’ve been damn near inseparable.
Their partnership is more like that of a golfer and his caddie than your typical player and coordinator. They spend long hours in the film room scouting both self and opponent for any potential weaknesses. Aranda then formulates a plan with input from White and come Saturday White executes it with Aranda’s guidance.
In White, LSU has a star with a blue collar work ethic that doesn’t always come standard with blue chip talent. The linebacker has evolved into a vocal leader in the locker room who watches more tape than anyone on the roster and likes to be coached hard.
While a gifted and prolific trash talker, particularly on the practice field, White’s brash words seem to be aimed more at bringing an edge to workouts than sheer boastfulness. LSU coach Ed Orgeron credited him with being the first player in the office the Sunday morning after the Troy debacle and taking ownership of the locker room from that point on.
Most of his free weekends are spent on campus working out, meeting with Aranda or hosting recruits on campus for a visit. When he does return home to Springhill, a town of about 5,000 on the Louisiana/Arkansas border, it’s to see his mother, Coesha Standokes-White, or tend to his seven horses.
“Credit to Devin, he’s 100 percent all about it, whether it’s coming in and watching film or doing drill work to work on his feet,” Aranda says. “I have not been around a player with as much accolade and talk about him that wants to get that much better. Devin wants to get better.”
So how much better can he get? The ceiling “is pretty high,” if you ask Aranda, who tends to be rather understated and matter-of-fact when faced with such questions. White has a more high-minded take on the question — literally.
“My ceiling is like being outside and not in the building, because once you get to the clouds you can still go up,” White replies. “My ceiling is very high.”
He thought about it for a second and specified further: “I want to be the best linebacker in the country and the best linebacker to ever come through LSU. I tell Bradie James that I’m going to be better than him every day. He’s like a big brother to me so he calls or texts me every week. I just set my limitations above and beyond, because if I don’t, then I’m not striving for anything. I’m striving for greatness.”
That obsession with improvement wasn’t always so obvious in White. Even he would’ve been surprised two years ago if you’d told him he’d be the face of the program and the leader of a defense going into his junior season.
But it’s there now, clear as day to everyone who spends five minutes talking football with White. And that mindset isn’t about to change just because his has become a household name.
“I haven’t thought about the attention much,” White says. “I know at one time I wasn’t the guy in the headlines. I just stay under the radar. I work out every morning at 7 a.m. and I’m busting my tail. I’m just trying to perfect my craft and get better, cause if I’m not getting better, then I’m not doing nothing at all.”
SURROUNDED BY TELEVISION cameras and audio recorders in a cramped, sixth-floor suite at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta, White is soaking up his moment in the sun. He’s chatting with local reporters before beginning his turn at SEC Media Days a few floors below, and the first question relates not to tackles, but attire.
White is wearing a business-like dark suit accented by a bright pink tie and matching pin on the lapel of his jacket. The question elicits a wide smile, exposing the pearly whites that’re no longer obscured by the braces White sported throughout his first two collegiate seasons.
His mother had picked out the outfit from head to toe. Coesha also posted on Instagram a picture of her television set glued to the SEC Network so she could see as much of her son’s run through the media gauntlet as possible.
“Whatever she want, that’s what we’re going to get,” White smiles. “I’m a guy that listens to his mother.”
Coesha was the guiding force in raising Devin to be the person he is today. She told her son to soak in the chance to represent his school at such a high-profile event, and he never stopped smiling from the first question about his wardrobe until the last some three hours later.
A paternal figure, though one that’s only been in his life for a few years, helped mold him into the linebacker that he is today. In fact they had already made plans to get together for a film session once Aranda returned to Baton Rouge from vacation the next morning.
“It’s like a father-son relationship,” White says. “I can go to his house to watch film. He comes back into town tomorrow and we’ve already got an appointment to watch film focusing on the first game of the season. The more I hear him talk, the more I feel comfortable with what’s going on, and I’m kind of helping him add to the defense. He’ll ask, ‘Devin, what you think about this or that?’ and I give him my input. For him to have that level of trust in me, at the end of the day, I’m thankful. He’s the mastermind behind it. I just go out and make it happen.”
That trust illustrates how far White has come in terms of the game’s cerebral side. He signed with LSU as a running back and only moved to linebacker because of a simple numbers game; that team had Leonard Fournette, Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams in the backfield versus a linebacker corps that was razor thin behind senior starters Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley.
White went along with the move because it meant seeing the field sooner, but he didn’t fully buy in right away. Running back had always been his passion while he only played linebacker because he liked to hit and there weren’t many other options at North Webster High. He’d never thought about the position any deeper beyond see ball, get ball.
A somewhat-cocky freshman at the time, White was not the film room junkie at first. He admits there was a time he barely understood the playbook, much less was he able to make the pre-snap calls or give input on schemes.
Riley was the first to get in White’s ear about dedicating himself to his craft. Both he and Beckwith were playing their final collegiate season, meaning LSU needed the hard-hitting freshman to step into a starting role in the middle in 2017.
Once that message got through, White decided the surest way to become the best he could be was to attach himself to Aranda at the hip. White soaked up knowledge like a sponge, and once he learned all the necessary information, he allowed his curious mind to wander, stoked by a burgeoning desire for greatness.
“I look at Devin in terms of how far he’s come as a running back who played some linebacker in high school,” Aranda says. “He made the switch with us and now he’s learned linebacker to the point where he’s finishing my sentences. He’s thinking about other positions and how this adjustment affects other positions. The questions that he asks are outside the realm of just his position, they’re into scheme and concepts. It’s pretty cool to see that; the time he’s put in and the hard work he’s invested.”
That exuberance for learning has made White an even more valuable asset to Aranda. He’s like having an extra graduate assistant at practice who also happens to be an All-American performer. The hope being that his intensity trickles down to the talented group of underclassmen around him.
White spent most of last season and this past spring giving rising sophomore Jacob Phillips a similar prodding to the one Riley gave to him. Phillips is a physical specimen who is explosive through the ball carrier, but he didn’t see much playing time until the bowl game due to a lack of understanding of the playbook. Now he’s seen as the favorite to start alongside White, likely splitting reps with Tyler Taylor.
The trio of Phillips, Taylor and Patrick Queen signed together and have already had a full season of being pushed by White. Now he’s imparting the same bits of wisdom to freshmen Micah Baskerville and Damone Clark. White spent part of summer workouts, which are players only, teaching the youngsters every drill LSU does so they won’t have to waste time learning them come fall camp.
“The young linebackers all see Devin and how he works,” Aranda says. “They see his strengths and they see him working on his weaknesses, and they’re motivated. There’s no pretense, man, and there’s no like ‘I’ve got it all figured out.’ There’s none of that.”
NCAA REGULATIONS LIMIT how much time player and coach can spend together in the offseason that pertains to football in any way. With that in mind, Aranda earned his ‘Professor’ nickname by leaving his star pupil with a homework assignment before heading off for a well-earned vacation to New York City.
White was told to watch film of All-Pro linebackers Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and Sean Lee, each of whom can make a case as the best the NFL has to offer. Aranda also had to him study Roquan Smith of Georgia and Reuben Foster of Alabama, the past two winners of the Butkus Award.
This can be a fruitful exercise for any football player. It’s never a bad idea to observe and emulate those at the top of their respective fields, particularly for someone like White who is still relatively new to the position.
Whether it’s Kuechly’s eye discipline or the way Lee uses his hands to defeat blockers, there’s always insights to glean, but there’s one specific area that Aranda wants White to brush up on — it’s just not one you’d expect for someone who averaged double-digit tackles per game last season.
“Devin and I have talked at length about being more physical on A-B (editor’s note: meaning between the tackles) runs,” Aranda says. “That’s why I had him watch those guys. He sees the violence they play with on A-B runs. With Devin right now, there’s glimpses of A-B violence, but a lot of it is C-D on the perimeter where he runs it down. If he’s able to get that, I think that’s the next step for him.”
To put that in layman’s terms, Aranda wants White to study the physicality with which those elite linebackers defend runs up the middle, the bread and butter of every backer. He wants him to honor his inside responsibilities before flowing outside to make plays.
The trick is doing so without taking away White’s instincts for the ball, which Aranda calls his greatest strength. He thinks like a running back playing linebacker, meaning he’s got more of a knack for anticipating cutbacks or when a ball carrier will bounce a play outside than do most defenders.
Improvisational instincts and athleticism alone got White to an All-SEC level. According to Aranda, learning to control and harness his natural aggression within a given scheme is the key to ascending to an even higher plane. That means defeating blockers to make a play, not running around them.
“Be more physical. Attack the line of scrimmage. Make sure my footwork is 150 percent correct and strike offensive linemen,” White says. “I want to have violence when I do it so I can get off a block and make a tackle. I kind of shied away from it last year because I wanted to be in on every play and moved instinctually. I wanted to just be there, but this year I’m going to focus on my task and complete my task before I try to do other things. I try to play so fast, and sometimes it hurts.”
“It’s not as simple as go run into that wall and make a dent, know what I mean?” Aranda adds. “That ain’t it. It’s about when to fill, when to scrape, when to cutback. For a young linebacker, it’s a natural thing.”
Controlled aggression, that’s the ticket. Or coordinated violence. White has always loved collisions, dating back to his past life as a bruising back, and the belief is that fact will become more evident once he begins to play a bit more inside-out within the context of Aranda’s scheme.
And after months spent in the film room, running drills and whacking teammates, White looks forward to Sept. 2 more than anyone on planet Earth simply because it means an opportunity to run into somebody wearing a different color jersey.
White has even lobbied Orgeron and new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger to install a goal-line package featuring him in the I-formation — “I’m the biggest back on the roster,” he jokes, sort of — with Rashard Lawrence lead blocking.
“We’re trying to advocate for it because the Heisman do sound nice,” White says, “but I’m going to do whatever the team needs.”
He’s also been in the ear of special teams coordinator Greg McMahon to get a spot on the coverage unit for the opening kickoff. Even if LSU is on defense to begin the season, White doesn’t feel like waiting until the first snap from scrimmage to make his presence known.
“I can’t wait to hit somebody,” he says. “I want to be the first one to run down there and set the tempo for the game.”
LSU may prefer White go ahead and set the tone for the entire season, not just the ultra-important opener. He’s both a reliable rock and the budding superstar on a team that carries so much uncertainty into the 2018 season.
The Tiger defense will go wherever their unquestioned leader can take them — guided by the mastermind in his earpiece, of course — and after an offseason of hard work, White is confident that means nowhere but up.
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