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Notre Dame linebacker Drew White not done surpassing expectations

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The old saying often echoed by his high school coach stayed with Drew White even after he ascended to Notre Dame’s top option at middle linebacker this season.

Roger Harriott, White’s head football coach at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., asks his players which room in the world is the biggest. Their answer has always been the same: room for improvement.

That mindset followed White long after he joined the Irish via their 2017 recruiting class.

“He’s the type of guy that approaches all circumstances with a blue-collar type of mentality,” Harriott said. “He goes about his business in a very professional state of mind. He’s never really satisfied.”

From missing most of spring football to beginning this season in a linebacker platoon, White has come a long way. The junior temporarily lost his place in the mix after undergoing surgery on a shoulder injury suffered in a March skiing accident. Though he lined up as the starter in the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville, White rotated with backup Shayne Simon.

Seven games later, and now White ranks second on the No. 16 Irish (7-2) in tackles with 55. He figures to play a prominent role in stopping the top-ranked rushing offense of No. 23 Navy (7-1) in Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC) at Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet White dismissed the perception that he’s overachieved relative to preseason expectations.

“Honestly, I haven’t done anything yet in my eyes,” White said. “I haven’t arrived at my goals or anything.”

Slowing down Navy’s proficient triple-option attack that averages 357.9 rushing yards could be White’s next step. Doing so last year helped launch him onto the scene and earn trust from the Irish coaching staff.

When buck linebacker Drue Tranquill exited in the first quarter with an ankle injury, defensive coordinator Clark Lea turned to White. In his first collegiate game involving high-leverage snaps, White held his own and recorded seven tackles.

“He obviously was set back with an injury in the spring, but he fought through that and put himself in a position where that game was not just a cameo for him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “It was something that was going to be more of what we’ve come to see this year, and that is really solid play at the middle linebacker position.”

As Kelly alluded, the 2019 version of White has been much more than just a niche linebacker. White has proven to be a physical player that can crush through blocks. His knack for diagnosing plays and disrupting them before they develop explains why he leads the Irish with eight tackles for a loss to go with two sacks.

The Irish understand that the Midshipmen also improved drastically since their last meeting. Navy, lacking a dynamic quarterback, contributed to its worst season under head coach Ken Niumatololo a year ago. The Mids were compelled to dial back their triple-option scheme and incorporated other elements to no avail as they stumbled to a 3-10 record.

But under quarterback Malcolm Perry — who switched to the position from slotback — the Mids returned to form and then some. Navy has gained at least 290 rushing yards against all but one opponent: Air Force. Perry leads all quarterbacks nationally in rushing, accounting for 1,042 yards and 16 touchdowns on 157 carries.

“Last year was last year,” White said. “Navy doesn’t care about what I did last year at all.”

A similar approach to that of last season will be the case for the Irish, however. Defending a triple-option design that can result in an inside hand-off to the fullback, an outside run by the quarterback or a pitch to the running back will always call for a collaborative effort defensively.

Notre Dame used five defenders on the line of scrimmage in its 44-22 victory over Navy. Asmar Bilal, the starting rover last season, came off the edge beside defensive end Khalid Kareem on the wide side of the field. The Irish inside linebackers and safeties lined up closer to the line of scrimmage than usual while the cornerbacks mostly operated in man coverage.

“Navy does a really good job of pushing the line, falling forward, gaining four or five yards every play,” White said. “While sometimes the audience or whoever is watching might not think that’s a good play, that’s what Navy thrives on.

“They just want to get that every play. It wears down opponents. We are focusing on being physical at the point of attack and pushing them backward.”

All 11 defenders are responsible for taking away at least one of the three options. Each defender remaining disciplined in their task helps stop the triple option. They can’t be fooled by players motioning pre-snap or misdirection. They can’t expect to make every play and must stick to their task.

Former Irish linebackers Manti Te’o, Greer Martini, Te’von Coney and Tranquill were among the best at defending the triple option under Kelly. That’s why White dissected film from their games against the Mids.

“He’s a student of the game,” Harriott said of White. “He does a great job of understanding what is expected of him. He goes and studies until it becomes second nature to him. That’s kind of the way he’s wired. He’s fixated on making sure that he’s in the appropriate position to make great decisions.”

“I’m not God, so I don’t know if that’s innate. But he just has intellectual gifts where he can process information and output at a proficient level.”

The nation’s No. 64 run defense will need White’s best against Navy, especially with star defensive end Julian Okwara out for the year (fractured fibula). White knows his lower moments against Louisville and Michigan can’t happen again. Making tackles in space and being sound in his gap assignments had been struggles for White at times.

The moments of greatness that followed were not enough to make up for those shortcomings, at least in White’s mind.

“I haven’t thought that I’ve surpassed my expectations at all,” White said. “If anything, I think that I’m just getting started.”

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Notre Dame’s Drew White (40) brings down Georgia’s James Cook (4) during the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, inside Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.

WHO: No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) vs. No. 23 Navy (7-1)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 7