Notre Dame LB Drew White finds ways to thrive in abnormality

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Excuse Drew White for accidentally describing the conditions caused by No. 5 Notre Dame’s mid-season pause for a COVID-19 spike as some form of normal.

After the team spent most of March, April and May away from their teammates and coaches and were forced to work out on their own as pandemic precautions swept the country, the Irish already had a blueprint for how to handle personal development in less than ideal conditions.

Back in March, White, as one of the team’s offseason workout captains, took charge of holding his teammates accountable for working out at home with player-only Zoom meetings.

So while many of his teammates were testing positive for COVID-19 or were put into quarantine through contact tracing in the past few weeks, White, a senior, knew his unaffected teammates would keep their momentum going.

“We feel like we didn’t really miss a beat,” White said. “I had full faith and trust in all my guys. I knew what everyone was doing. I knew everyone was doing the right thing. It was just right back to normal — or really the abnormal — but right back to where we left off in the quarantine in March and April.”

White spent his spring seclusion in Miami with three of his friends. They gathered at the home of Louie Berkowitz, a former Colgate offensive lineman who played with White at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas. Alex Washko and Jake Allen, who both lived on the same street as White in Boca Raton, were also in the mix.

Allen, a Dartmouth quarterback who started his career at Florida, has known White since their freshman year at Boca Raton High. They became teammates again at St. Thomas Aquinas as juniors.

“It just kind of worked out perfectly how two best friends living on the same street would end up going to one of the nation’s strongest powerhouses in high school football,” Allen said. “It was all a coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.”

White and Allen have had distinctly different college careers since then. The 6-foot, 227-pound White took over a starting linebacker role as a junior for the Irish last season and finished tied for the team high with 80 tackles. The 6-1, 205-pound Allen transferred out of Florida following his freshman season and hasn’t played much in the previous two seasons at Dartmouth.

Allen’s first season at Dartmouth in 2018 ended with a hand injury that required surgery. With Allen set to play in what would have been a junior season of eligibility at Dartmouth this year, the Ivy League canceled its 2020 season because of the pandemic.

Allen, still waiting to start a game at quarterback for the first time since his senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas, remains committed to playing at Dartmouth next season. Then Allen plans to pursue a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. But Allen likely needs to earn some playing time at Dartmouth to find an opportunity elsewhere.

With the help of White this spring, Allen knows how much work he needs to put in to reach his goals.

“Drew’s mindset absolutely changed the course of where I’m going in terms of athletics,” Allen said. “Drew was at it every day. ‘Jake, we have to get in the weight room. We have to go outside.’

“We were working out in the backyard. He would have me act as a running back. He would have me throw him little angle drops where he had to read mesh and then drop to a certain zone. We were doing this in a backyard of a house.

“A lot of guys would feel sorry for themselves. ‘Bummer. I want to be working out with the team. COVID sucks.’ But Drew’s mindset was this is a time that I need to get better. This is a time that I need to prepare myself. I could not have been happier living with a guy like that.”

Finding comfort

Drew White’s favorite part of the day is practice.

Allowing him to tackle in practice only adds to the excitement. The Irish did that on Sunday with a scrimmage before shifting into a typical game week preparation.

“Obviously, we wanted to get back to playing some football,” White said. “As a defensive player, whenever you can tackle, that excites you. Definitely high energy, everyone’s flying around, getting to the ball, really acted like we didn’t miss a beat. It was great going out there Sunday and having a good day.”

White and fellow senior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are the steadying force in the second-level of Notre Dame’s defense. Both are tied for the team high with 10 tackles in the first two games. But the buck linebacker position alongside them comes with a group of inexperienced players.

Junior Shayne Simon and sophomore Marist Liufau split the work in the season opener against Duke and were both unavailable for the South Florida game. Sophomore Jack Kiser, who tallied eight tackles in their absence against USF, is now unavailable this week. Simon and Liufau are expected to be back in the buck linebacker rotation Saturday against Florida State (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).

White has confidence in all of them.

“Our linebacker room is stacked,” White said. “We have the most depth I’ve ever seen while being here. I don’t think any other school in the country has as much depth at the linebacker position as we do either.

“So any of those bucks that line up, any of the mikes that line up, are going to be able to take control of the defense, get everyone lined up, play hard, play fast and get to the ball. Full trust.

“We’ve been able to rotate throughout practice and even games to where I feel like I have a great chemistry with all the guys, no matter who I line up with.

White has his own development to monitor. For as strange as the past seven months have been, White is in a better position than he was last year. He missed most of spring practice last year with a shoulder injury. That didn’t prevent him from earning the starting role, but he was doing a lot of learning on the fly.

This season, White can lean on his experience and a healthy offseason to drive his improvement. In the first two games of the season, Pro Football Focus credited White with six quarterback pressures. That’s as many as he had all of last season.

White didn’t want to put too much value on a statistic like that, but he does believe comfort in the defense can help him and his teammates.

“With a true veteran defense,” White said, “I feel like we can apply way more pressure and aggressiveness to our game plan.”

Staying positive

As Florida products themselves, it’s no surprise that White and Allen have connections to Florida State.

They were high school teammates with Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State’s Preseason All-ACC cornerback. White talked with Samuel as recently as last week looking forward to seeing their teams compete on Saturday.

Allen also knows Florida State starting quarterback Jordan Travis. The two have worked with the same quarterback coach, so White picked Allen’s brain for a bit of a scouting report on Travis.

“He knows his defense inside and out,” Allen said of White. “He knows football inside and out. We’ll just bounce little things off each other, but nothing crazy.”

Allen and White are so invested in football that part of their daily routine during their two-plus months together earlier this year was a Madden NFL video game draft. Each day they would attempt to craft the perfect NFL team. It was another way to pass the time while keeping football on the brain.

Fittingly, White spoke about the last several months as if he was a football coach.

“I really think through all this I’ve just relied on what I’ve been doing since I’ve gotten to Notre Dame and that was to control what you can control,” White said. “In this type of environment at a big, prestigious college with big academics, big athletics, there are so many things — challenges and obstacles with injuries too — that can be thrown at you. It’s just how you respond.”

That kind of outlook is why defensive coordinator Clark Lea should feel comfortable with a rotating cast of buck linebackers lining up next to White. If White can do for those linebackers what he’s done for Allen, the Irish should be in good shape.

“I’ve been going through an interesting time in my life, and he’s been someone that I’ve been able to lean on,” Allen said. “There aren’t many people like that.

“Drew understands what’s important in life and that’s relationships and having a positive outlook. I’m so thankful to have a friend in Drew. I definitely wouldn’t be the same person without having a guy like him in my life.

“I can’t wait to watch him play this Saturday against Jordan and see what happens in his career, because he’s a hell of a player and obviously a hell of a person.”

Notre Dame linebacker Drew White provides a steadying force in the middle of the Irish defense.
Notre Dame linebacker Drew White, right, is tied for the team high with 10 tackles through the first two games of the 2020 season. Pictured here, White tackles Georgia running back James Cook last season.