How Marcus Freeman Is Challenging Linebacker Drew White, A Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Steady Hand
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How Marcus Freeman Is Challenging Drew White, Notre Dame’s Steady Hand

Drew White has a little more free time these days.

As a non-degree seeking graduate student, the Notre Dame middle linebacker’s academic workload isn’t as strenuous as his undergrad classmates’.

“I’ll be taking some classes here in the fall,” White said, “but going from a full load of science and business classes to kind of a less demanding academic schedule — this is the first time I’ve seen it — it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, this is awesome.’”

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football graduate student linebacker Drew White
White has made 137 tackles since the start of 2019. (Gerry Broome/AP)

When he picks the rest of his graduate classes, he says he might challenge himself more than some of his former teammates did when they took this route as fifth-year seniors. He’s considering a finance class. He is enrolled in some economics courses.

“I’m a little bit of an overachiever,” White said.

All told, it’s still scaled back. And whatever he chooses, it will surely fall short of his football demands. Because even as a third-year starter and one of the Irish’s most reliable players, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is pushing him to find something more.

“The biggest thing with Drew is continue to be a leader,” Freeman said.

Notre Dame needs a few of those. All five of its captains are no longer around. College football teams lose leadership every season, but Notre Dame’s turnover in that area this season is larger than normal. White, as one of three fifth-year senior starters on defense, is a logical candidate to raise his voice and fill the void.

But there are on-field aspects Freeman is stressing too.

“I know he came off the field a little bit on third down — same thing with [nose tackle Kurt] Hinish — but we’re going to put the best guys on the field on third down. You should take it as a challenge to make sure you’re on the field.”

In his first two seasons as a starter, White has largely been a two-down player despite racking up 137 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three pass breakups. Pro Football Focus credited him with 72 run stops in that span, nine more than teammate and 2020 Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

White has stayed in the game for short-yardage third downs, but usually trots to the sideline when Notre Dame’s nickel and dime defenses take the field in obvious passing situations. Coverage isn’t at the top of his list of strengths.

He was, though, quietly effective as a blitzer. On 38 pass rush snaps, he generated pressure 13 times. In sub-packages, linebackers are often called on to blitz. Nickel linebacker Bo Bauer is a third-down staple because of his blitzing skills and instincts.

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More third-down work for White would likely come at Bauer’s expense. That might not end up being what’s best for Notre Dame’s defense – Bauer’s success in that role has proven valuable itself – but it’s a goal for White to set nonetheless. The extra time can only help him get there.

White has filled in his schedule with more time recovering from practice and focusing on his diet. His film study time hasn’t increased much, he said, because his appetite for it was already strong. He had built extra hours for it in his undergrad schedule.

In some free moments, White has also found himself reflecting. At this time two years ago, White was working with the second- and third-team defense at middle linebacker, trying to reignite his campaign for a starting job that ended prematurely in spring. A shoulder injury while skiing during spring break knocked him out of commission and down the totem pole.

By the end of camp, though, he was the clear choice.

That alone felt improbable. Maybe earning third-down opportunity does too. But he has defied expectations before.

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