Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Javin White knows his history when it comes to UNLV’s defense. The Rebels haven’t fielded a legitimately good unit on that side of the ball in a long time, and it has been especially poor in recent years.
Last season, UNLV allowed 37.2 points per game while stumbling to a 4-8 record. In Tony Sanchez’s four years as head coach, the Rebels have given up an astounding 34.9 points per game, and it has been 12 years since UNLV has held opponents under 30 points per game for a season. The program has tried everything—new head coaches, new coordinators, new schemes, new recruits—and the results have not changed. Bad defenses, bad teams.
White recognizes all that, and he’s determined to do something about it. That means changing everything about the UNLV defense on and off the field. Not only would it require a superlative player to effect that change, it would take strong leadership. It would take attitude. That’s where White checks in as UNLV’s most important defender as the team opens its pivotal 2019 campaign August 31 against Southern Utah at Sam Boyd Stadium. The senior linebacker isn’t just one of the Rebels’ top tacklers and their most proven playmaker on defense, he’s also their best chance at transforming the entire culture.
White is—figuratively and literally—the loudest voice on the defense. “He’s going to be loud wherever he goes and let it be known that he’s Javin, he’s J-White,” says senior linebacker Gabe McCoy. “He’s that type of high-energy, confident guy.”
White came to UNLV as a scrawny defensive back in 2015, and after a redshirt year appeared in eight games as a freshman, mostly playing safety. He bulked up some as a sophomore and took on a hybrid safety/linebacker role, appearing in 11 games and finishing with 42 tackles.
UNLV vs. Southern Utah
• When: Saturday, August 31, 7 p.m.
• Where: Sam Boyd Stadium
• Tickets: $17-$53, unlvtickets.com
• Streaming: unlvrebels.com
• Radio: ESPN 1100-FM
As a junior last year, White made the leap. Moving into a full-time linebacker role, he played in all 12 games and made 74 tackles. He routinely asserted himself in the biggest moments, consistently producing momentum-shifting plays (two sacks, four interceptions, four forced fumbles). In the Rebels’ season-ending comeback win against UNR, White intercepted two passes, including one to seal the game late in the fourth quarter. That star performance only emboldened him in the locker room and on the practice field. Now, it’s hard to observe a UNLV practice without hearing his voice overpowering the action.
“My job is to keep my energy up, and my intensity,” White says. “It’s just natural to me. I’ve always been engaged. Coach Sanchez tells us all the time, the team is going to go the way our leaders go. I was recently picked for captain, so I know everybody is looking toward me and I know that they sometimes need my help to get their energy up.”
Before the ball is snapped, White’s booming voice belts out instructions to his fellow defenders. After good plays, he’s a whirlwind of congratulations. There is no “off” switch. On the sidelines, White works even harder, a ball of energy stalking up and down the line. He shouts encouragement at some teammates, challenges others and never stops dapping along the way.
“He goes up and down,” McCoy says with a laugh. “He’s always tapping somebody’s butt or shaking somebody’s helmet or slapping somebody’s shoulders. He probably gives out a thousand a week. That’s him. He wants to make sure everybody’s in a good mood and playing at a good tempo and make sure the game or the practice is going well.”
White’s nonstop chatter isn’t reserved for the defense. When he lines up in practice, the offensive players get an earful, too. Senior receiver Darren Woods has taken so many reps against him in their four years together, he can almost recite from White’s trash-talking playbook word-for-word.
“If I’m lining up against him and he’s pressing me and I shout out a keyword to the quarterback, he’ll just start mocking me and saying the same words,” Woods says. “Or if we’re lining up in between plays, he’ll always tap at my helmet and things like that. If it’s a play and I’m back-side, he’ll be like, ‘Oh you’re locked up! They don’t want to come to you! You’re locked up!’ [But] it’s all fun and games, because at the end of the day we’re trying to make each other better.”
Sanchez understands the effect that White’s personality has on his teammates. “The thing about him [is], he’s not just vocal, he’s having a good time,” Sanchez says. “It’s a party out there for him every single day. When you have guys that practice as hard as he does and you bring that type of energy level, it just raises the whole team.”
White isn’t afraid to tell it like it is when the situation calls for it, either. He knows how bad UNLV has been defensively and is determined to turn it around, starting with the team’s intensity in practice. If someone isn’t working as hard as White thinks they should, he’s not going to let it slide.
As uncomfortable as it can be to question and call out teammates, White will step in and do it. “I feel like challenging them is the best way to do it, especially in college, because at UNLV we have a history of falling off and not being intense in practice. I’m trying to pick that up right now, and I know my teammates expect that from me.
“I’m like a Kobe Bryant,” White continues. “Kobe Bryant was really intense during practice. Sometimes he would talk mess. He would do that to certain players to bring out that drive in them. I feel like I motivate my guys. If they make a good play, I always tell them, ‘Hey, that’s hell of a play right there.’ But when we’re slacking, I expect the same. I tell them, ‘Hey, you need to pick it up because you’re BS’ing right now. We need to go.’”
In part, White’s words carry so much weight with the Rebels because he backs them up with his play. White’s versatility is his greatest strength. He has the ability to make plays in the running game while covering like a defensive back, and his instincts always seem to place him around the ball when there’s a play to be made. As the stats suggest, players of his caliber have been few and far between for UNLV during the past two decades.
White says he has put on about nine pounds since the end of last season and plans to play at 210 pounds this year. He says the added muscle has made him more explosive, and he expects to enjoy his most productive season.
“My body feels really good right now, probably the best I’ve ever felt out of all my years being here,” White says. “I’m moving faster. I feel like I can control the blockers better now. I’m moving with the receivers the same; I actually feel a little bit faster. When I’m running with the receivers on fades and stuff, I feel quicker. So I feel good right now.”
Transforming the UNLV defense is a monumental task, and the odds are stacked against White. But if he’s going to fail, it’s not going to be because he let up. After a particularly “dog days” type of practice in August, White hangs around the field as his teammates jog off. Two hours of full pads isn’t enough for him.
By himself, White starts jogging the width of the field. Back and forth. Picking up in speed and intensity with each crossing. Fifteen minutes after the final whistle, with most of his teammates having departed for the ice baths and the cool of the locker room, White is still pounding out sprints.
For once, a football field with Javin White on it is quiet. He doesn’t have to say a word.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.