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Drew White’s on- and off-field growth has Notre Dame primed for Wisconsin ground game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Purdue at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 18: Notre Dame Fighting Irish leprechaun celebrates after a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Purdue Boilermakers on September 18, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, In. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When asked about No. 18 Wisconsin’s linebackers, their Notre Dame counterpart Drew White gave a short laugh and an honest response this week.

“I just hone in on every offense. That’s my role. That’s my job,” White said. “It’s not going to help during game day, so might as well not focus on [Wisconsin’s defense].”

In his fifth year at Notre Dame and third season as a starter, White (No. 40 above) is deliberate with his time. In this case, he spends it studying the Badgers’ run game, led by Clemson transfer running back Chez Mellusi, before they meet Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago (12 ET; FOX).

Mellusi hit the ground running in Madison, rushing for 265 yards in two games. Landing at Wisconsin made sense for him since Badgers head coach Paul Chryst is known to lean so heavily on the ground game.

For that matter, Chryst’s and Mellusi’s fit makes Wisconsin the ideal opponent for White.

“I think it’s known around the whole Gug (Notre Dame’s football facility) that I like defending the run,” White said. “Any inside linebacker that plays Wisconsin would like it.”

Fortunately for the Irish, last week’s showing against Purdue included far fewer drastic mistakes than the first two games of the season. White attributed those early-season struggles to giving up big plays and lacking the attention to detail that allowed them, but solving those problems in a 27-13 win against the Boilermakers gave way to a more “aggressive and physical” style of play.

“I think we also saw a step in the right direction here in Purdue, us starting to get the defense, and the game speed, and figuring out all the little details of the defense,” said White, who has 13 tackles thus far this year.

He stressed the importance of having a short memory and forgetting about mistakes. As one of the 2021 captains, White counsels the younger players on creating that tunnel vision: “We talk about one play, one life, and that’s really big.”

White rotates steadily with classmate Bo Bauer, and he studies Bauer’s play from the sidelines to help both of them make in-game adjustments. White has embraced the split reps and the advantage they provide.

“What’s the point of having really good depth if you’re only going to play the same linebackers the whole game?” White said. “The rotation and giving guys breaks and letting really fresh legs and fresh minds go into the game is an advantage.”

The cohesiveness of those linebacker rotations came together against Purdue, as did the defense as a whole. After struggles against Florida State and Toledo, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s contingent looked like a complete unit.

The majority of that work happens during the week’s practices, where White and the other leaders of the defense are helping to stress the importance of urgency and intensity. They’re encouraging the unit to take practice one day, one rep, at a time. Then, if and when Notre Dame gives up big plays, the defense is working on limiting the widespread residual effect.

That sense of urgency is also meant to speed up the timeline of eliminating mistakes where there is little margin for error. On that front, White doesn’t mince words — “It’s not fall camp anymore.”

Take White’s honest responses and clear focus and maturity, and it’s easy to see why he has become a leader of this defense. Add in his three years of starting experience and five seasons in the program, and the choice becomes even more obvious. In fact, of the four defensive captains, three are graduate students (White, end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and tackle Kurt Hinish); the fourth is star junior safety Kyle Hamilton.

White’s demonstrated leadership extends beyond the field, as well. In August, White’s first NIL deal was announced: a partnership with SkyView Partners, an investment bank and specialty lender. In the same announcement came the note that White would donate 20 percent of his profits to Uplifting Athletes’ Lift for Life, a nonprofit organization that raises money for people with rare diseases.

The new NIL opportunity marks one way the college football landscape has changed off the field since White’s arrival five years ago. In that time, White’s on-field role has grown gradually each year, a steady path from scout team to starter to captain. He’s increased his responsibilities and learned to keep teammates focused on the task at hand, and he’s learned how to prepare for big games. Sometimes that includes ignoring the other team’s impressive linebackers.

White’s task against Wisconsin is simple. He has one very clear objective: Stop Mellusi and the Badgers run game.

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.

tweet to @carolinepineda_