By Aaron S. Lee
NEW ORLEANS—Football is back.
After months of uncertainty regarding the potential cancellation of the 2020 season due to the seemingly never-ending new coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 NFL season kicked off Thursday with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs defeating the Houston Texans 34-20.
Now it’s safe to say that all eyes are squarely set on Sunday’s showdown between Tom Brady and Drew Brees in New Orleans on Sunday.
As if the off-season acquisition of six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady – arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history – and his all-time favorite touchdown target (78), All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, during nine seasons together in New England was not enough, Tampa Bay has added former LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
The fourth overall pick of the 2017 draft joined the Bucs off waivers this week after three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, in which the 25-year-old New Orleans native ran for 2,631 yards and added 134 receptions for 1,009 yards, scoring 19 total touchdowns.
And perhaps no one is happier for Fournette’s arrival than fellow former Fighting Tiger – Devin White.
Despite being on the opposite side of the ball, the Springhill native and Tampa Bay linebacker is more than thrilled to be rejoined by his former collegiate mentor.
“He’s always been a big brother to me,” said the North Webster alum, who played with Fournette at LSU during the 2016 season.
“I actually got recruited by a lot of colleges as a running back and a linebacker – I was able to play either-or. So, when I used to go on my visits (to LSU) they used to pair me up with him. We had a history of knowing each other before I actually signed and enrolled at LSU. When I got there, he still took me under his wing, even though I made the transition to go play defense.
“He said he always saw something in me, and I was willing to work, so he was willing to instill that mindset that he had, already [having] played at the college level. I took it and ran with it.”
With an already potent offense coming off the best passing attack in the NFL under Jameis Winston, who is now a third-string quarterback for the Saints despite leading the league in passing yards, completions and attempts in 2019, thanks in large part to also leading in interceptions and total turnovers, including an NFL record of seven pick-sixes, White is hoping to continue his own upward trajectory on a sack-happy defense (47) that was tops against the run allowing just 73.8 yards per game (3.26 yards per rush).
In fact, the fifth overall pick of the 2018 draft, who recorded 91 tackles in 13 starts last season despite missing three games due to knee injury, helped anchor a rush defense that only allowed a total of 1,181 rushing yards on the season, which is the 11th-fewest ever allowed by a team in a 16-game season.
White overcame the early season setback and finished the year with back-to-back NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month honors, four fumble recoveries including two for touchdowns with the latter being a 91-yard romp to the house against Atlanta in Week 17.
With another year under the system and a “tenfold” increase in mobility and speed thanks to ditching the knee brace, the 22-year-old White is quick to bend Brady’s ear in practice and prove the Bucs defense is up to the task come Sunday.
“At the end of the day we’ve got great guys on our side of the ball too and if I had to put the game on the line I’d rather my defense be out there than him and the offense, so that just lets you know,” said White, who recorded a career-high 13 tackles in a loss to New Orleans last November after sitting out the Bucs’ defeat in the Superdome due to injury a month earlier. “But he’s really making us better.
“We’re getting better every day we go out there and compete against him. And I think a great thing is I’m able to go to (Brady) after practice and see the things that he’s seeing that we need to improve on to make our defense even better.
“I’m going to him and getting advice because he’s seeing it every day, so I know another team is going to look for it on film and try to pick us apart with it in a game. If we fix it in training, we don’t have to worry about it.”
— Featured photo of Devin White courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers