Cory Littleton

Javin White 'won't be denied' in quest to make NFL name with Raiders

Javin White 'won't be denied' in quest to make NFL name with Raiders

Javin White worked tirelessly to get to this point.

He used to drive from Vacaville to Oakland's McCylmonds High School, where he had dreams of being a standout receiver. White committed to UNLV, a program that has long been down on its luck, as a three-star prospect. He paid his dues for the Runnin' Rebels, working his way up from special teams to become the face of a program as a versatile defensive player who saw time at cornerback, safety and linebacker.

White wanted to be the first UNLV player drafted in the NFL since the Atlanta Falcons drafted Joe Hawley in the fourth round in 2010. But White didn't receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, and his pro day was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. His name wasn't called during the draft, but his phone rang shortly after. The Raiders were on the line, wanting to add the athletic hybrid to their rookie class.

The kid who went to high school in Oakland, and became the face of UNLV football joined the team moving from the East Bay to Sin City. White has a strong belief in himself and that his NFL journey truly will begin in Silver and Black.

"I'm going to bring my confidence," White said on the latest "Raiders Talk" podcast. "My confidence and my play. Even when I was in college, I was a confident player. I refer back to college because that's what people have to go off. When people watch my game they understand that feistiness I have. Everything I come with, that's pure heart. I love this sport. I love everything about it. Me being with the Raiders, I feel like this is a great program for me. I can be myself. I'm one of those guys that's going to get after it, and I won't be denied."

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

As the Raiders modernize their defense, it's easy to see White finding a home in silver and black and developing into a quality NFL player.

After years of getting picked apart at linebacker, the Raiders overhauled the position this offseason. They brought in Cory Littleton to man the WILL linebacker spot and signed Nick Kwiatkoski to be the MIKE. Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock drafted Clemson safety Tanner Muse in the third round, and plan to move him to linebacker. Muse, like White, is a versatile, athletic defender who saw action all over the field in college. Muse will start his Raiders career as a special teams ace, and White should join him there if he can win a spot in training camp.

Even if White can't win a spot initially, he should find a home on the Raiders practice squad and be in perfect position to develop into a solid, modern-day linebacker for the Silver and Black.

As an undrafted free agent without rookie minicamp or OTAs, White faces an uphill climb to make the Raiders' roster. He knows that. But he's driven by hard work and the determination to make it in the NFL. There's a chip on his shoulder and a desire to prove those who overlooked him were wrong. It's the type of attitude that has become a calling card for the new era of Raiders football Gruden and Mayock are overseeing.

"Honestly, that's just like my life story, you know?" White said. "The chip on the shoulder, that's old school. In this time right now, it's more. I got out the mud. Nothing was given to me. When I came to UNLV I wasn't a highly-ranked dude. I worked my way up. I redshirted, played special teams just like everyone else had to do. Then, when I blew up, I never looked back. So when people ask me, 'Oh, were you always a star?' No. I got it straight out the mud like a lot of people do in college. Now, I guess I just got to get out the mud again in the NFL."

[RELATED: Renfrow's continued growth key to Raiders' offensive resurgence]

White couldn't ask for a better spot to start his career as an undrafted free agent. The Raiders are starting anew in a town he knows well. A town that loves him and is rooting for him. He'll enter a building with Littleton, who went undrafted out of the University of Washington and became a special teams maven before transforming himself into one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL.

Littleton knows the road from undrafted to NFL star. White undoubtedly will be glued to him, picking Littleton's brain as his NFL journey gets underway.

Much like Keelan Doss did a year ago, White has the chance to become a fan favorite to Raider Nation. A local kid with East Bay and Vegas ties hoping to become a long-term part of the Raiders' future while building his own brand as Las Vegas' favored son in silver and black.

The skills and the drive are there. White just wanted an opportunity. He didn't get one in the draft. There was no combine invite. A virtual pro day was all he had to prove his worth at the next level.

The Raiders liked what they saw. Now, the real work begins again for Javin White.

Why Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski are vital to Raiders' defensive resurgence

Why Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski are vital to Raiders' defensive resurgence

The Raiders have employed a steady string of underwhelming linebackers either well past their prime or lacking the talent to excel in today’s NFL. The position has been a weakness for years now, with the team unwilling to invest significant funds or high NFL draft picks to upgrade the position.

That was particularly odd with head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton guiding the defense and general manager Reggie McKenzie in charge of personnel, considering they all manned the position as players.

Current defensive coordinator Paul Guenther also played linebacker in college and coached the position before coordinating defenses and values a position he trusts with significant responsibilities running his scheme.

The Vontaze Burfict experiment didn’t work out, leaving the Raiders back at the starting point with linebacker as a team weakness.

The Raiders didn’t mess around with the position this offseason, offering two of the three biggest free-agent contracts this offseason to Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. Those two should pair well together as true three-down linebackers capable of defending the run and pass well.

Those signings turned a pronounced weakness into a team strength in terms of talent. Littleton’s a true sideline-to-sideline presence and was the best coverage linebacker on the market. Kwiatkoski proved a starting-caliber middle linebacker when given the opportunity last year and is more of a thumper against the run with an ability to function well in coverage.

Their on-field presence will prove vital to an improved Raiders defensive effort. What they’re doing now, when practices are not permitted might be equally important.

The Raiders, like every other NFL team, are immersed in a virtual offseason program focused on meetings conducted via video conference while players remain away during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

While some Raiders already have assembled in the Las Vegas area and are working out in small groups, most are getting physically prepped on their own.

This mental work, especially mastering Guenther’s system, is vital for two new players charged with orchestrating it from the middle of a defense that could feature six new starters.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]
 

Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot and call signals for Guenther, who heaps tons responsibility on his middle linebacker. That player must be a true field general, an extension of Guenther, as Burfict was when available to the Raiders in 2019 and for years before that in Cincinnati.

That excellent working relationship was built over time. Kwiatkoski especially must get up to speed quickly and capitalize on the opportunities to apply it in practice. He won’t have OTAs available to do that. They have been canceled due to the ongoing public health crisis, with ESPN reporting this week that players won’t be permitted back in team facilities until training camp despite coaches being allowed in starting Friday.

Being able to understand, apply and execute Guenther’s scheme is as vital as anything for a 2020 Raiders team that spent heavily on defense during free agency. Chemistry must be built quickly to avoid early-season pratfalls that will hurt a realistic opportunity to make the AFC playoffs for just the second time since the 2002 season. The margin for error isn’t big enough to account for missed opportunities even in September.

The unit must also operate as one quickly, something we didn’t see last year with blown coverages and miscommunication occurring too often in early losses.

[RELATED: Raiders' offseason additions have Jon Gruden primed for playoff return]

Forming cohesion doesn’t just fall on Kwiatkoski and/or Littleton. Guenther and his position coaches must get the effort rolling with productive virtual meetings. The entire defense, led by returning members of an overhauled group, will play a part in how well they play together.

Making proper calls and checks from the heart of this Raiders defense and ensuring good communication with the line and the defensive backfield is essential to a productive start. The Raiders brought in a pair of smart, talented linebackers in their prime to help get that job done. It may be a bit harder due to the unique offseason, but they’re certainly up to the task.

Raiders' offseason additions have Jon Gruden primed for playoff return

Raiders' offseason additions have Jon Gruden primed for playoff return

The Raiders overachieved in 2019. The sum was greater than the whole of its parts. The Raiders sat at 6-4 and looked primed to make the playoffs. They went 1-5 in their last six games and missed the playoffs in their final season in Oakland.

Despite the apparent talent deficiencies, the Silver and Black made a three-game improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 of Jon Gruden's second tenure with the Raiders. They entered the offseason with a laundry list of needs and just about filled them all. That has some believing 2020 could be the year the Raiders return to the playoffs, and NBC Sports' Peter King is quite high on them, ranking them No. 8 in his offseason power rankings.

"I probably like the Raiders more than most because of the offensive improvement and because of four defensive additions: defensive end Carl Nassib, inside linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski, and cornerback Prince Amukamara (decent year in 2019 in Chicago, very good in 2018)," King writes.

King has the Raiders ranked above the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, which would mean another impressive leap is in store for Gruden's team during its inaugural Las Vegas season. While that seems a tad high, the roster improvement can't be ignored.

General manager Mike Mayock and Gruden made several key additions in the offseason. They entered free agency knowing they had to fix a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA last year. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther just didn't have the horses. Vontaze Burfict got suspended, Johnathan Abram and Karl Joseph got hurt and the wheels came right off. The pass rush was improved but not good enough. The secondary, outside of Trayvon Mullen, was a patchwork job that was torched late in the year. The linebacking corps was a vicious, life-sucking black hole that the Raiders couldn't board up.

So Mayock and Gruden made wholesale changes to the defense, injecting talent into a unit that sorely lacked it in 2019. Littleton and Kwiatkoski are the big additions. Getting two playmaking, three-down linebackers was a massive win for Guenther and the defense. Last year, the Raiders might as well have been playing with nine men on defense. They got less than zero from the linebacker position. Now they have two athletic backers who can cover tight ends and running backs. Just those additions alone should drastically improve their ability to defend both the run and pass.

But the Raiders also bulked up the line with the addition of Maliek Collins and Nassib, and improved the secondary with Amukamara, rookies Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson and safety Damarious Randall. Abram also will be back and healthy after missing all but one game in 2019, and we should expect improvements from Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Mullen in Year 2. All that talent should allow the Raiders defense to make a jump into the middle of the pack when it comes to NFL defenses.

In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Raiders went to work on the other side of the ball. They drafted wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, as well as running back/athlete Lynn Bowden. With Tyrell Williams healthy and Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller looking to improve on impressive 2019 seasons, quarterback Derek Carr finally has a full arsenal of weapons to run Gruden's offense with.

The Raiders kicked around the idea of signing Tom Brady. They met with Justin Herbert over Zoom before the draft. They brought in Marcus Mariota to push Carr. But make no mistake, this is Carr's team and the Raiders have removed all of the excuses he's had in the past. The offensive line is one of the best in football when healthy. Ruggs, Williams, Renfrow, Waller and Edwards are a dynamic receiving group and Josh Jacobs is one of the best backs in football.

All that amounts to the potential of a career-year for Carr, who now will have to prove he's the franchise quarterback many believe him to be.

[RELATED: Raiders' playoff hopes rest on shoulders of five players not named Carr]

The Raiders are much improved, but so is the rest of the AFC West. The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs still are the kings of the NFL, the Denver Broncos added firepower to their offense and the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Herbert to be the quarterback of the future.

Couple a hard division with a tough schedule that sees the Raiders face the NFC South and AFC East as well as the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, and the Raiders face an uphill battle in 2020.

But the Raiders should be a better overall team in 2020. They stacked talent on talent with a solid 2020 draft class, and used their cap space to give the defense a huge facelift. Eight seems a tad high, but the expectations should be high for the Raiders in 2020.

Having capable linebackers and a real receiving corps should be worth at least two wins. With an extra playoff spot now on the table, a 9-7 should get the Raiders a ticket to the postseason dance.

That's all Gruden can ask for as his full rebuild hits the next phase.