DE Steve White (94) is working hard because he knows he has Marcus Jones (78) looking over his shoulder
He has a somewhat anonymous name and a somewhat anonymous background, and to Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans in the summer of 1999, he might have been just that: anonymous. Steve White changed that in a hurry with a great '99 training camp, in which he usurped Regan Upshaw's starting right defensive end job, eventually leading to Upshaw's September trade to Jacksonville.
Let's make one thing clear up front, however: White did not 'come out of nowhere' to gain a starting spot on one of the league's best defenses. Since joining the Bucs' practice squad in 1996, White has remained on the roster and increased his statistics, playing time and profile each year. From a four-game, one-tackle debut in '96 to occasional sub status and 11 tackles in '97 to a top backup role, 27 stops and two sacks in '98, White kept improving and catching his coaches' attention.
And so it was that White succeeded in taking the next step into the starting lineup in 1999, from where he expected to produce an eye-opening season. However, foot and ankle injuries kept him out of three games and slowed him for many others, allowing him to perform competently but not flashily. Meanwhile, converted defensive tackle Marcus Jones found a new lease on NFL life at end and clearly proved that he was also worthy of significant playing time.
All of which sets the stage for 2000, when White goes into camp as the starter this time but now has Jones in the role he used to be familiar with.
"You can't approach (your preparations) any differently," said White of his outlook as a starter in 2000. "Every year, I view it as if I'm trying to win a starting job. And I really have to look at it that way, because I've got Marcus Jones behind me and he's a great player. He had a great season in 1999. He's not going to give an inch, and neither am I."
Head Coach Tony Dungy may see the irony in White going immediately from the hunter to the hunted, but he can't help but look at it in a positive light. "It is a little different for Steve this year," said Dungy. "We like Steve a lot. He contributed a lot for us in '98 and we knew he was going to play quite a bit (in '99), but he just kept getting better and better and eventually got into that starting role. Now I'm sure it's one he doesn't want to give up, and he sees Marcus in the same position that he was in the year before, a guy that finished the season strong and is looking to play. But we feel like we've got three really fine ends and we're happy with that situation."
White actually finished the 1999 season with stats almost identical to his 1998 ledger, but he did come on strong at the end of the campaign, when he was finally rounding into full health. He had seven tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in the Bucs' crucial season-ending wins vs. Green Bay (12/26) and at Chicago (1/2), then went on to an even greater performance in the playoffs. Against Washington in the NFC Divisional round, White racked up seven tackles, two sacks and a critical forced fumble (recovered by DT Warren Sapp) to help the Bucs pull out a 14-13 win. A week later, in the NFC Championship Game, White tipped Kurt Warner's first pass of the game in the air then grabbed the rebound, resulting in a game-opening field goal. For White, that four-game run to close the season was an indication of what he felt he was capable of all year.
"I won't sugarcoat it – I didn't have a great year in 1999," he said, though Dungy did not echo that sentiment. "I was disappointed in the year I had but, from the second half of the first game until about the 14th game, I wasn't healthy. I looked at it as if the last two games of the regular season and the playoffs were going to be a second season for me, and I tried to make an impact then. I made some plays, but it still wasn't good enough. I'm looking for this to be a breakout season for me."
Will it be? Dungy wouldn't be surprised. "We think he's got a chance," said Dungy. "He made a lot of big plays for us. Probably not as many as he wanted, but Steve's a real solid player and we feel really confident with him going for us."
White's path to that spot in his coach's confidence may have been slow and steady, but it was not unexpected. When he was first drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round in 1996, he was a player that had also caught the eye of the Bucs' scouting department. When the Eagles let White go at the end of training camp that year, Tampa Bay quickly signed him to its practice squad. Later that year, he was elevated to the active roster. Though he shares the starting defensive line with Sapp and is currently holding off Jones, a pair of former first-rounders, he also starts alongside Chidi Ahanotu, another sixth-rounder (Tampa Bay, 1993) and Brad Culpepper, a former 10th-rounder who was picked up on waivers in 1994. In discussing the Bucs' initial interest in White, Dungy explained that that kind of mixture is what you will see on a successful team.
"We really liked Steve coming out," said Dungy. "We weren't able to draft him. We had the same feeling on Damien Robinson and they both ended up in Philadelphia. We were able to get them both and put them on our practice squad and they developed through the ranks. I think that's just a tribute to Tim and Jerry and Rich, keeping an eye on people like that. We've had a lot of success that way.
"Those are the guys that really make you into being a very good team, because you only get so many number-one picks. Obviously, you've got to hit on those, but even if every number-one pick is there, you're still not going to have a good team unless you find some way develop the rest of it. We've done a good job with people like that: Steve White, Damien Robinson, Shevin Smith, Floyd Young, Shelton Quarles, who came from Canada after being released by Miami. Now (Quarles) is starting and playing great, too."
Though the Bucs are nearing the end of four weeks of voluntary summer workouts, no lineup decisions are being made at this point. If indeed a defense of his starting position is needed, it will begin in training camp on July 23. Right now, White is just laying the foundation, like the rest of his teammates.
"This has definitely helped me get back into the swing of things," said White of the series of 14 workouts that will end on Thursday. "We're going over the defenses we're going to use during the season and also spending a lot of time on skill development. We do a lot of drills designed to help us get off the ball quickly and improve our pass-rush skills. We have built a strong reputation as a defense, and we want to live up to it. In fact, we want to make that reputation even better this year."
That's a fine goal, and one that can work on an individual level, as well. Judging by the path his career totals have taken, going only upward in his four-year career, White is a good bet to meet that goal.