Analysis

Devin White's postseason dominance proves no challenge, moment too big for Bucs' rising star

If it appears that Devin White is all over the field on Sundays -- and typically he is -- you should see him in practice. Sometimes the second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker can be found on the edge of the defensive line, other times in the middle of the secondary. He is like a football nomad, relentlessly seeking the next competition, the next opportunity to show he cannot be beaten.

He will walk up to outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and declare that he can beat Barrett off the line of scrimmage. He will slide over to the defensive backs and boast that he can catch balls they cannot. He does so playfully yet pointedly, with an athletic arrogance that brings a smile to the face of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

"Devin will challenge you on anything, I don't care what position," Bowles told NFL Network's Steve Wyche and me on a recent episode of the Huddle & Flow podcast.

The greatest challenge of his young career will come Sunday, when he and the Bucs face off against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. If one thing can be gleaned from the previous two rounds of the playoffs, it is that the moment should not be too big for White, a former LSU star who has been dominant since missing the postseason opener because of COVID protocols.

He had 11 tackles, a fumble recovery and a fourth-quarter interception that set up the clinching touchdown against New Orleans in the Divisional Round, then a franchise postseason-record 15 tackles with a fumble recovery at Green Bay in the NFC title game. His performance is a carryover from the regular season, when he had a club-high 140 tackles and led all inside linebackers with nine sacks, earning second-team All-Pro honors with teammate and fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David.

"This young man was drafted to come in and make impact plays -- that's what he did at LSU -- and you're starting to see his game expand to where he's using that speed to go sideline to sideline," Derrick Brooks, the Hall of Fame linebacker and Tampa Bay area resident, told Wyche and me. "He's understanding what zone spacing is in a zone defense. He's always been a great blitzer and understanding that component of it because he's a former running back. But now, really the last six weeks, Coach Bowles has positioned him and he's adjusted his game to where now he can use that speed as an asset because he's understanding zone spacing. You see that with the interceptions that he has gotten. He's going to continue to get better because he definitely has the big-play ability, and at the same time, Lavonte David complements him well."

Bowles refers to David as the big brother in the relationship, not only because of the difference in years -- David is 31, White 22 -- but, perhaps, because of life experience. David has been around the league long enough to know what's important. Talented enough to command the spotlight himself, he is wise enough not to get out of sorts because White's "wow" plays draw more attention than his steady play. Helping White only helps him and the team have greater success.

"Lavonte has really taught him from a mental standpoint how to watch tape and how to be a pro and understand angles and pass drops," Bowles says. "Devin's a great player, no doubt about it. Devin comes and he hunts and he loves to play the game. He's a ton of energy. Lavonte ... is probably technically sound while Devin is run and hit. Devin is the guy that runs down the hill and chases all the cows; Lavonte will go down and take his time and go one by one."

Savvy quarterbacks such as Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes have been known to exploit a young defender's over eagerness, which is why the presence of David is so important. He's the ebb to White's flow, bringing balance and perspective. He knows what to say, how to say it, and when to say it to bring out the best from White, whose energy jumps off the screen when watching him.

The Louisiana native plays with an enthusiasm that makes it hard to believe he'd ever want to be anywhere else. His smile is constant, like his chatter, and his quickness is matched only by his physicality. His closing ability is so impressive, his speed appears to be fiber-optic to everyone else's dial-up.

"He's an old-school player; he loves to play the game," Bowles says. "Mentally, he reminds me of a younger Ray Lewis -- not physically, because Ray was one of the greatest I've ever seen play the game. But mentally, just the energy he brings per play and (how) he's working toward just getting guys around him to gravitate and make plays. He has that type of energy."

But athleticism alone does not make an impact player, which is why White had to get back in the lab after his rookie season. It would be an exaggeration to say he struggled beneath the weight of expectations after being drafted fifth overall in 2019, but his play was not up to his standards despite his final tallies of 91 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 13 games. Not surprisingly, the person most often at his side was the person whom he credits for helping him blossom, the person who will be alongside him Sunday: David.

"I already had the attribute as far as athletic skill set," White says. "Now we're just taking it to another level as far as mindset. He's still helping me to have one of the great mindsets in the game because as a linebacker that's a key component, to be able to outsmart everybody. I'm a very smart young man, but you got to be football smart. For him to be playing at the NFL level for a long time, he's way more football smart than me, so I'm just trying to take bits and pieces to catch up with him."

Says David: "When we're out there on the field, I've got to trust him and he's got to trust me. I always tell him, 'You make my job easier and I make your job easier.'"

To know each of them is to know they relish the challenge of facing off against Mahomes and a Chiefs offense that put up 17 first-quarter points on them in a 27-24 Chiefs victory on Nov. 29. Football is about competing, and White will look internally and externally for opponents, be it Barrett, the Bucs' standout edge rusher, or Mahomes, arguably the league's best quarterback.

Let the game begin.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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