SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Chasing the latest trend isn’t Devin White’s style.
It gets in the way of chasing the latest ball carrier.
It has just been in the past few weeks that White has grudgingly traded in the cleats he wore since arriving at LSU in 2016 for the purple ones the Tigers wore in October against Mississippi State with their special all-white uniforms, though he admits he did that “because they just look good.”
Watching him in practice before LSU arrived here for the Fiesta Bowl, you would not have seen White in the latest perfect new practice jersey. You would have seen a well worn purple jersey, the No. 40 fading into the fabric back and front, though here you would have to find it on safety Grant Delpit because he got White to trade with him, per LSU's bowl tradition.
“I’m not into all that hype and fashion. I wear cowboy boots around,” said White, careful to mention he’s a round-toed George Strait kind of boot guy (pointed toes are a nonstarter). “Most guys go get the first Michael Jordans or wear those new Balenciagas and stuff. I just try to stay true to who I am.
“When I put on that old raggedy jersey at practice, it shows I’ve put some work in in this jersey. It’s ripped up and faded, there’s a lot of blood and sweat, but no tears. I don’t cry at practice.”
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Devin White thinks highly of UCF and its 25-game winning streak, but doesn't think much of the school's claim to a 2017 na…
It is also the fashionable thing for marquee junior players to skip their non-College Football Playoff bowl games to guard against the chance they may suffer a freak injury and damage their draft stock. That includes Greedy Williams, the now former LSU cornerback who would push his fellow All-American White to come up with a big play or turnover each week, with White pushing him back to do the same. Nose tackle Ed Alexander is gone, too, for similar reasons.
White is not trying to protect his draft stock that way, though whether he will make himself eligible for April’s NFL draft he has still yet to confirm or deny, often coyly twirling the words of his answers like someone working a plate full of spaghetti. He made it quite clear four weeks ago Monday that he would play in Tuesday’s Fiesta Bowl against UCF (noon, ESPN).
It isn’t so much about playing the Knights and trying to snap their 25-game winning streak, currently the nation’s longest. They are just the latest team to try to invade his territory. Who they are or how they play — up-tempo, in this case — doesn’t concern him as much.
“I really don’t care,” White said. “I just want to make plays. It can be slow tempo, fast tempo, on concrete, in the dirt, in the desert, on the mountain. Just run the ball and let me come tackle you. That’s all I want to do.”
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White is a self-professed football guy. An LSU football guy. It is perhaps why the NFL’s fortunes perhaps don’t have him quite in the same grip as it does others.
“Some people just play for money,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys. It’s just something that comes along with it. You’re able to make a career out of it.”
White has his eyes on an even greater prize. In a sense he is a throwback, a relic of an earlier sporting time akin to the Roy Hobbs baseball player in “The Natural,” who longed to walk down the street one day and have people say he was “the best there ever was in this game.”
White possesses that sort of next level ambition, a remarkably mature attitude for someone who does not turn 21 until Feb. 17. He knows when he is chasing that running back or that wide receiver or running down that quarterback he is chasing something else:
The legacy of all the great linebackers who have come before him.
“I want to be the best,” White said. “I genuinely mean that when I say I want to be the best. I look at the guys who came before me — Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Brian Urlacher — I look at those guys and say I want to be better than them. I want my name mentioned with them. I want to be above them. I try to get a step closer to that goal every day.
“It brings a passion and energy to my game. I’m not so focused on those guys, but I know I’m in a race with those guys. Their race is over with, but I’ve still got to keep running to catch up with them.”
White usually catches what he pursues.
He led the Southeastern Conference with 133 tackles in 2017. With 115 tackles coming into the Fiesta Bowl, White needs five more to pass Vanderbilt’s Jordan Griffin to become the SEC tackles leader once again. Little wonder that earlier this month he became a consensus All-America selection and the first LSU linebacker to win the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s best at that position.
UCF linebacker Nate Evans, himself a Louisiana native who prepped at John Curtis, is among White’s fans.
“When he hits, he hits,” Evans said. “He takes his anger out on whoever he hits. So just watching him, I mean, he’s real good. He gets to the ball. He has a nose for the ball. Real, real good linebacker.”
That White is even a linebacker at all is one of those remarkably rare and successful transformations, like the one that saw Josh Reed move from running back to a Fred Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver for LSU in the early 2000s.
Inside linebacker Devin White was named LSU's MVP at the team's award ceremony Monday night at the Union Theatre.
White was known mostly as a running back, too, when he was coming out of North Webster High School in Springhill. He rushed for 1,660 yards and 31 touchdowns as a high school senior and 5,031 yards and 61 TDs in his prep career in addition to 192 tackles as a linebacker.
In 2016, then-LSU assistant Ed Orgeron lobbied for White’s potential to cross over permanently to defense.
“I was in the room when coach (Les) Miles said we needed some linebackers,” Orgeron said Sunday. “I was the one that suggested that. Frank (Wilson, former LSU assistant) recruited Devin, and I got there right after that. We needed some linebackers, and I talked to Frank. And Frank thought he would be a great linebacker.
“I've been a part of some great running backs that moved to linebackers before, and they became great players. Devin is one of the best linebackers I've been around. I do believe he's still developing. But one thing about Devin that stands out is that his commitment to the football team, his character, his leadership, his love for LSU and the state of Louisiana. We're proud of him.”
White takes pride in his leadership skills as well. He said his personal highlight of 2018 was not a particular game or key play, but how he tried to help his team rebound from their first loss, a 27-19 setback at Florida.
“It was a game where nothing was going right for LSU,” White said. “We couldn’t get off the field on defense and we couldn’t score on offense, but we were right in the game. We were No. 5 in the country and when we walked into the locker room everyone had their heads down like the season was over. Everyone wanted that undefeated season. I went in and I rallied them up and talked to them about how we had to get motivated for the next week because we had the No. 2 team coming in (Georgia) and they thought everything was going to be sweet.
“I remember that week in practice I stepped up with my leadership and we ended up blowing them out.”
LSU star linebacker Devin White cleared up rumors Monday about whether or not he'd travel with the Tigers to face UCF in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.
A 36-16 rout of the Bulldogs was LSU’s signature victory. White, of course, led all tacklers with 13 and added a fumble recovery, but it was the aftermath that left him with the biggest impression.
“I can’t put any individual statistic over getting a great win over a big-time opponent, and all the greatest fans in the world to rush the field, patting you on the back and wanting to take a picture with you,” he said. “That was a great feeling.”
The low point of the year? That’s even easier for White to remember.
“The bummer of the year for Devin White was the end of the Mississippi State game when he pushed the quarterback and got the targeting call and got to miss the first half of one of the biggest games of the year,” White said, referring to himself in the third person as if trying even now to distance himself from the memory of it.
LSU fans rallied to the defense of their greatest defensive player in the two weeks leading up to the Alabama game. There were billboards and howls of protest. The phrase “#FreeDevinWhite” dominated Twitter.
White is the kind of player and person who inspires that kind of emotion.
“He’s one of the best linebackers I’ve ever been around,” LSU quarterback Joe Burrow said. “If you’re slacking, he’s not afraid to say something to you. He’s a guy we like to follow.”
Is he an LSU Tiger to follow in 2019? Saturday, White offered the closest peek he has yet into his decision process as to whether to turn pro or return for his senior season.
“Right after the game, I want to celebrate with my teammates,” White said. “I’ll fly back with the team, and when I get back to Baton Rouge I’ll go hang with my friends until they go home. Then when I go home, that’ll be the time to talk to my parents and see what’s best for me.”
What’s best for him. Not necessarily what is fashionable.