Sustained success can help Notre Dame LB Drew White shed surprise label

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Being labeled as a surprise feels a bit weird for Drew White.

He played his final two years of high school football at national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and won state championships both years.

White played well for the Raiders too. He led St. Thomas Aquinas in tackles in his junior (101) and senior (107) seasons.

Along the way, White received scholarships offers from the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, LSU and Wisconsin. When Notre Dame offered him on an unofficial visit in March 2016, White committed just two days later. He grew up in a family of Irish fans led by his grandmother.

But when White first joined Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting class with a verbal pledge, Rivals ranked him as a two-star recruit.

“I came from St. Thomas Aquinas, I think the best high school in the nation,” White said. “Being a guy on that team, I never really saw myself as being a surprise. I saw myself as a good defensive player.”

Rivals eventually moved White into the three-star category but still left him off the list of the top 35 inside linebackers nationally in the 2017 class and the top 100 prospects in Florida that year. And in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, White did little to prove any of his doubters wrong.

White redshirted as a freshman and saw action in just four games as a sophomore last season. His lone significant contribution came in replacing an injured Drue Tranquill in last year’s win against Navy. White recorded five of his six career tackles in that game.

In a crowded linebacker competition this spring, White took a back seat when a shoulder injury suffered during a skiing accident on spring break required surgery. That didn’t stop White from battling his way back into a starting role come the season opener at Louisville.

White experienced his share of ups and downs in his starting debut. White recorded five tackles, two tackles for a loss, his first career sack and his first career pass breakup. He also missed a critical tackle on a third-down conversion in the third quarter and found himself out of position at times.

White played 52 of the 75 defensive snaps against Louisville — more than any other inside linebacker and just 10 less than starting rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Fellow starting inside linebacker Asmar Bilal played 40 snaps. The coaching staff appears to have faith in White as the team’s mike linebacker.

“Drew White had a nice first game starting for us,” head coach Brian Kelly said this week.

Call the 6-foot, 230-pound White a surprise if that’s how you see him. Just don’t expect him to agree.

“At this point, I don’t really see myself being a surprise,” White said. “I really just see myself coming out and having fun and showing the team what I can do and how I can benefit the team as a whole.”

Surgeon in training

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon has been a dream for White since his days at St. Thomas Aquinas.

That’s why he’s enrolled in Notre Dame’s College of Science with a pre-med focus. But White couldn’t have anticipated receiving so much experience with an orthopedic surgeon as a result of his own injuries.

“I definitely have some more injuries on my list,” White said. “I definitely know a little bit more about orthopedic stuff. It’s still a dream of mine.”

In 2018, White suffered a foot injury that required surgery. Then this past spring came his shoulder injury. Notre Dame’s team physician, Dr. Brian Ratigan, performed both surgeries. Now White and Ratigan, who played linebacker for the Irish from 1989-92, know each other pretty well.

“I’ve talked to Dr. Ratigan a lot,” White said. “He’s a really nice guy. He’s one of my favorite guys here on the staff. I love talking to him about everything.”

Surgeries have put White on the sideline more than he would have liked. He attended the 2018 Blue-Gold Game on crutches and attended the spring scrimmage this past year with his right arm in a sling. Each time he’s had to endure a grueling rehab process to put himself back in position to play.

Last season, he’s hard work resulted in his brief moment in the spotlight against Navy. This year, White has the opportunity to make a much longer lasting impression.

“Having a lot of injuries, it’s taught me a lot about myself,” White said. “It’s taught me that adversity can strike at any moment. That plays a part when I come to practice. I’m going to bring my effort and energy every play, every practice, because I’ve seen that it can go away really quick.”

Turns out health can be taken away pretty fast on skis. White doesn’t like talking too much about his spring break injury. He described it as a freak accident.

“It wasn’t on any black mogul,” White said. “I don’t know what you guys think I’m doing. I wasn’t even going fast. I fell awkwardly.”

It wasn’t White’s first time skiing either. But he doesn’t plan to do it again any time soon.

“I will not be going skiing until after I’m done playing football.”

White, who also had his junior season in high school cut short by a foot injury, could have sulked following his shoulder injury. The frustration has to start adding up at some point. But he kept his focus on the four-month recovery he needed in order to be back in time for Notre Dame’s preseason camp.

“There was definitely some disappointment,” White said. “I definitely didn’t want to do that for my team. I didn’t want to do that for myself. I used it like every other injury that I had before then. It was just some more adversity that I was going to have to overcome. It was going to make me a stronger, tougher person.”

Made for mike

The constant shuffling and tinkering of Notre Dame’s inside linebackers likely hasn’t finished for the 2019 season. The task of replacing Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill is an ongoing process.

But for the time being, White has landed as the top solution at mike (middle) linebacker. It’s a position that suits him.

Mike linebackers are counted on to communicate with the rest of the defense. It’s a responsibility White has embraced. He’s spent hours in the film room verbally identifying alignments to prepare himself for game days.

“One of the biggest parts of being a mike linebacker is to get everyone lined up,” White said. “If you’re out of alignment, or even someone else is out of alignment, that falls on the mike ‘backer. He has to be the leader of the defense.”

A lack of nerves helps too. White’s experience against Navy gave him more meaningful college snaps than any other linebacker on Notre Dame’s roster not named Asmar Bilal.

White felt prepared when he entered the Navy game for Tranquill last season. He felt the same way on Labor Day against Louisville.

“I was pretty relaxed for both games,” White said. “I was really just trusting myself, trusting the coaches with their game plan and trusting my teammates. It’s really easy to go out there with 10 other guys that you trust and honestly love to play with. I don’t get too nervous when it comes to it.”

That should help White not worry about the ongoing competition at inside linebacker. He wants to prove he’s worthy of all the snaps he played against Louisville. White knows there’s confidence in his ability to stop the run. He wants to show he can be helpful in pass coverage too.

“I would be careful to pigeonhole him as a plug run guy,” Kelly said before the Louisville game. “I don’t know that we can play a guy that is a liability in the other areas because he’s not. He can get out and cover the back. He’s got a good sense in the passing game.

“He’s just been more effective. But not to the level where he’s walking around going, ‘I’m the starter from here on out.’”

White knows the opportunities can be taken away from him at any moment. Sticking to his strengths will prevent him from losing them.

“He knows exactly what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea said last month. “He doesn’t shy away from that. And so he tailors his approach to maximize. He’s got a really, really nice knack for finding the ball. Really good football instincts.”

White has a knack for winning too. He hasn’t known much else since his junior year in high school. He eventually won his battles with injuries. Don’t be surprised if he starts helping the Irish win more games too.

“That guy’s a winner,” Lea said. “He’s fought through adversity and hasn’t wavered, hasn’t backed down, has been counted out probably a hundred times and there’s something to be said about someone that’s that resilient.”

Notre Dame linebacker Drew White (40) pursues a tackle on Louisville’s Tutu Atwell (1).
Drew White CulverNotre Dame linebacker Drew White spent part of 2018 recovering from foot surgery and wasn’t able to fully participate in practices at the Culver Academies. White also had to undergo shoulder surgery earlier this year.
Notre Dame linebacker Drew White spent the 2018 Blue-Gold Game on crutches as he recovered from a foot injury.