TAMPA, Fla. -- Minutes before kickoff for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Week 9 game against the Seattle Seahawks, middle linebacker Devin White huddled his fellow rookies together. Cornerback Carlton Davis had just suffered a hip injury in warm-ups, meaning Jamel Dean, who had played just three defensive snaps up until that point, would get his first NFL start, and White sensed some jitters.
“This is what they brought us here to do,” White told them.
White showed what he was capable of in the third quarter, when he ran more than 50 yards to overtake running back Chris Carson and strip him of the ball. While it wasn’t a turnover because the ball bounced out of bounds, it could stand out as one of the Bucs’ top defensive plays this season. Not just because of White’s athleticism -- he was clocked at 21.8 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data, the fastest of any linebacker or any front-seven player this season and the third-fastest of any linebacker since 2016 -- but because of the effort.
“It’s all will,” said White, who wound up forcing another Carson fumble in the fourth quarter of the Bucs' overtime loss. “You wanna play up to a standard. You want to play up to the standard of being the best. Like when you’re out there, you wanna compete for everything. And that’s something that I just wanted to tell them going in because a lot of plays I make -- it’s off hustle.”
Those types of plays provide a window into a young man who, from the way youth football coach Shaun Houston described him, might be the sorest loser ever to come from Cotton Valley, Louisiana.
“He’s one of those guys who hates losing more than he likes winning," Houston said. “Even at a young age, he was absolutely a sore loser. He was a terrible loser. ... He just had a very hard time processing losses.”
When he was at college at LSU, White willed his squad back from a 20-0 deficit to beat Auburn in 2017 with a career-high 15 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss.
He proved his dedication when he played after spending the night in the hospital on the eve of his first NFL game because of tonsillitis and dehydration.
That kind of effort is exactly what the Buccaneers need, at 3-6 and three days after cutting ties with former first-round draft pick Vernon Hargreaves over what coach Bruce Arians said was lack of hustle. They need White to continue to come barreling after opponents and to shake the core of the team’s foundation, to shift the culture of a defense that has become far too accustomed to losing and, at times, loafing.
"Coach Arians said it like -- ‘I need people to make plays instead of just playing the game,'" said White, who wound up with 12 tackles, a half-sack, two quarterback hits and two forced fumbles in the loss to Seattle. He credits his elevated play to shedding the brace from a sprained MCL.
"That’s what I’m trying to do and I know [his younger teammates are] going to do it as well. ... They drafted us to come play. So, we need to show them that we are capable of doing it, and it starts with me, because I was a first-round pick. I'm just trying to lead by example."
Bucs linebacker Kevin Minter has known White since he was a freshman at LSU and marvels at his leadership and playmaking.
"Regardless of him being a rookie, he wants the best out of this defense. He wants the best for this team," Minter said. "He doesn't mind stepping in front and saying that [stuff]. He's a special kid. Everybody knows that here. ... He can put 'em up and put 'em down. That kid can run and always has. Like I knew he could run but I didn't think he was gonna do all that [against Carson]. But that kid surprises me every day."
Veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has gotten into players' faces this season over mistakes and perceived lack of contrition after losses, applauded White for huddling up his teammates.
"It says a lot," Pierre-Paul said. "It says he's ready to take on a role that most guys won't. When I was a rookie, I wouldn't have ever done nothing like that."
That initiative sets the tone for other rookies such as Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mazzi Wilkins, who was called up from the practice squad, to spend 12-plus hours at the Bucs' facility each day, trying to accelerate their learning curve and to take ownership of the defense.
"All he's doing is setting an example, trying to set a standard. 'If I can hustle down here and make this tackle, doing everything I can so this guy won't make a touchdown, why can't anybody else?'" Minter said. "You can't be too good to go down there and make a play. Regardless of where it is on the field, you need to go make that tackle, especially as a defender. It just has to be in you. 'I'm gonna get this man down. Nobody else gets him down, [I'm gonna] go get him down.'"
White admitted the losing isn't sitting well with him. He never lost more than four games in a season at LSU. And the Bucs face a tough test Sunday against the 7-2 New Orleans Saints. They are dealing with multiple injuries in their secondary, coupled with the release of Hargreaves.
“It’s been hard. The hardest thing ever. Because I’m a sore loser,” White said. “Like in the locker room after the game, especially before the media comes in, I’m wondering like, ‘Damn, what’s the next step? How to fix it?’ Because that’s what it’s all about. But I’m a firm believer that the table’s gonna turn one day and it’s coming soon.”