Drew White plays 'maniacal' man in the middle for Notre Dame's defense

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Don’t make Drew White angry.

His older brother, Sean, has known that for years about Notre Dame’s middle linebacker.

“When he plays angry, he plays better than usual,” Sean White said. “Growing up in general, when he felt an extra motivation of any kind, he definitely turned it up a notch.”

The younger White hasn’t had to look far for motivation throughout his football career. First, Drew was the younger brother of an Under Armour All-American quarterback trying to make a name for himself. Then he was a two-star recruit in the eyes of Rivals despite scholarship offers from Michigan, Ohio State, LSU and Notre Dame as a junior.

The latest snub for Drew came last week when the ACC announced its conference honors. He didn’t make any of the three All-ACC teams, as voted on by conference head coaches and media members, or receive an honorable mention.

Drew was the only one of No. 4 Notre Dame’s 15 players who have started at least 10 games on offense or defense this season to not receive at least honorable mention from the conference. The All-ACC list included 16 linebackers without a spot for Drew.

But Drew doesn’t need to look for any extra motivation for Friday’s matchup with No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in the College Football Playoff semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (4 p.m. EST on ESPN). Being overlooked is business as usual.

“I’ve really always not gotten the credit that I thought I deserved,” Drew said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, I’m sitting here getting ready for the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff playing with a top defense in the country.

“It’s not about the awards. It’s about the respect that I can get from my teammates and the coaches in the locker room. As long as those guys respect me, have faith in me and trust in me, that’s all I really care about. That’s all I really play for to begin with.”

Drew gained all of that from defensive coordinator Clark Lea when he could have been considered an afterthought. Lea turned to Drew to replace an injured Drue Tranquill against Navy in 2018. He finished the game with six tackles in what could have been the highlight of his Notre Dame career.

But Lea turned to Drew again the following season despite him missing much of the offseason with a shoulder injury from a skiing accident. He started 12 games for the Irish and recorded 80 tackles as a junior.

Eleven games and 48 tackles later for the No. 14 scoring defense in the FBS, Drew has earned the title of “against-all-odds member of the defense” from Lea.

“He’s really had to battle,” Lea said. “But what makes Drew special is his character, his personality, his competitive spirit. He is every day pushing himself.

“I don’t know that I can think of a day where I remember taking the field — in practice, I’m talking about — and worried about where Drew’s mind was or whether or not he was going to give everything he had. He is as consistent a player as I’ve ever coached in that respect.”

Blacking out

Drew White brings more to Notre Dame’s defense than consistency.

He’s not just an average 6-foot, 227-pound linebacker that you can count on to keep other players in line and be in the right place at the right time. He makes plays too.

In addition to his nine tackles for a loss, which are second-most on the team behind Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, White has registered six tackles for no gain, five tackles for a one-yard gain and five third-down stops. He’s recorded two pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and 1.5 sacks.

In the ACC Championship against Clemson, White deflected the Trevor Lawrence pass that safety Kyle Hamilton then intercepted.

White brings steadiness to Notre Dame’s defense, but he also brings an edge.

“For as pleasant and as awesome this guy is off the field, he’s maniacal on the field,” Lea said. “You’ll take that on your team every time. So that’s really what’s allowed him to flourish in this system is a skill set. He has a skill set. He’s a very good short-area player. He’s a physical player, even though he’s not the biggest.

“But honestly, it’s the combination of this relentless preparation and focus and consistency off the field or in preparation and this maniacal attitude on the field. We always joke he almost kind of blacks out during the game and just plays. It’s fun to watch, and he’s been a lot of fun to coach.”

Flipping the switch is part of White’s routine.

“That’s something I’ve had my whole career playing football,” White said. “I’m sure a lot of the guys on the team can attest as well that I have a different personality off the field than what I have on the field.

“Coach (Brian) Kelly talks about your optimal zone and how some players have to play relaxed and some players have to get up to a high tempo and high spirit to play well. I need to get myself excited and I guess maniacal to play well.”

Maybe that goes back to growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., with a competitive older brother who was three grades ahead of him.

“We used to play any sport at any time out in the front yard after school,” said Sean White, who started 16 games at quarterback for Auburn in 2015 and 2016. “It would be me versus him most of the time. Unless friends were over. That definitely toughened him up because of the age difference, especially early on I had him quite a bit.

“I learned not to wrestle with him or do any type of physical stuff once he started getting bigger than me.”

Beating ‘Bama

In the two seasons Sean White started at Auburn, he never actually played against rival Alabama. He missed the game both in 2015 and 2016 with injuries.

So of course getting a chance to see his younger brother play against Alabama in the College Football Playoff has a little extra meaning. Sean, who works in Baton Rouge, La., in insurance premium financing, will be in Arlington to watch Drew play in person for the first time this season.

“I always want Alabama to lose, so that’s just a cherry on top,” Sean said.

Sean’s big bowl moment to close the 2016 season didn’t end well. He broke his right arm in the first quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma and quarterback Baker Mayfield and tried to play through it. The Tigers (8-5) lost 35-19 to the Sooners (11-2) in New Orleans.

The Whites could have returned to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 if the College Football Playoff hadn’t assigned Alabama-Notre Dame to the relocated Rose Bowl instead of the Sugar Bowl, where No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State will play.

“He’s been a role model for me, to begin with, since the youth football days,” Drew said of Sean. “Watching him play in the Sugar Bowl against Baker and what he’s battled through and how he’s handled adversity has been amazing. He’s taught me so much, and he’s a big part of the success that I’ve received.”

Achieving success against Alabama’s lethal offense will be Drew’s biggest challenge yet. The Irish defense couldn’t keep Clemson in check in a 34-10 loss in the ACC Championship and the game slipped well out of reach with a 44-yard touchdown run by running back Travis Etienne late in the second quarter and a 34-yard touchdown run by Lawrence in the third quarter.

Alabama has plenty of weapons available to beat the Irish starting with quarterback Mac Jones, wide receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris. Jones (3,739 passing yards and 32 touchdowns) and Smith (98 catches for 1,511 yards and 17 TDs) are two of the four Heisman Trophy finalists this year and Harris (1,262 rushing yards and 24 TDs) finished fifth in voting.

The Crimson Tide offensive line is also one of three finalists for the Joe Moore Award for the top offensive line in college football. The combinations of challenges could turn White’s game-day anger into frustration in a hurry.

“The focus is to make them snap the ball as many times as possible and limit the big plays,” White said. “That’s something that we got away from in the ACC Championship game against Clemson. We had too many explosive plays.

“If we’re disciplined in the back seven and then disciplined in our run defense as well and gap sound, we can limit their explosive plays, which will make them have to drive the ball and have long drives. At that point it gives us more opportunities to make big plays and get negative-yardage snaps and make them get behind schedule.”

Notre Dame linebacker Drew White flips a switch to become “maniacal” when he takes the field for the Irish.
Notre Dame linebacker Drew White, right, attempts to sack North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.
Middle linebacker Drew White (40) is the most seasoned of Notre Dame's large returning linebacker contingent.