BATON ROUGE, La. – Morris Claiborne figured out quickly that Tre’Davious White would be more than just another kid tagging along in his shadow.
As it turns out, the two Shreveport, La., natives could wind up in a very similar place because of their football talent.
Claiborne was an LSU star from 2009-11, culminating with a junior season in which he was a consensus All-American and won the Jim Thorpe Award, which annually recognizes the best defensive back in the country.
He and White never stepped on the field as teammates, but they have a bond that goes back to when Claiborne was fighting his way out of their hometown. Both played for a Shreveport-based AAU basketball program, and White became Claiborne’s constant shadow.
“Every time I looked around, he was always at the games I was playing,” said Claiborne, now in his fifth season with the Dallas Cowboys. “I remember one of my teammates telling me, ‘This little dude is always talking about you and saying he wants to be like you.’
“When you hear that, you want to be a great role model. We have a relationship that’s built up over time and it’s very special and important to both of us. We have the same goals, coming from the same place. We’ve always had a lot of people telling us we can’t make it out.”
They have made it out, with Claiborne setting a strong example.
“We came from same kind of neighborhood, and when I was young, I watched him and saw how much character he had,” White said. “The way he carries himself was always the way I wanted to be.”
That has paid nice dividends for White so far, and last week was another highlight in his four-year LSU career.
With the Tigers building a head of steam offensively against Jacksonville State, White gathered in a punt late in the first half, backtracked 21 yards, then started weaving his way downfield, using speed, instinct and a bevy of blockers to traverse 81 yards on what officially went down as a 60-yard touchdown return.
In the Tigers’ season-opener the week before, White snatched an interception and dashed 21 yards for a TD against Wisconsin. He is the only LSU player with two trips to the end zone this season. White has returned three kicks for scores the past two seasons, one shy of the school record.
The penchant for the end zone aside, a strong connective bond between Claiborne and White shows up most in their skills as cover cornerbacks.
Claiborne came along during an impressive run of LSU defensive backs; he was a teammate at different times with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon.
As good as the Tigers were in the secondary, Claiborne was as good as any of his teammates and his three-year LSU stats bear that out: 95 tackles and 11 interceptions.
White has produced similar numbers, although he isn’t the same level of ballhawk as Claiborne. Opposing quarterbacks steer clear of him, because he may be an even better defensive back in coverage.
“He has all the tools to be an NFL cornerback,” NFL draft analyst Mike Detillier said. “Speed, athletic ability, instincts. He really has a shot to be a great NFL player.”
None of which surprises Claiborne, who was the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft.
“I really don’t know anybody who works harder than that kid,” Claiborne said. “When he comes to see me, he’s in the weight room at my house 24/7. I have to tell him, ‘Hey, let’s take today off. It’s OK to relax a little.’
“I admire that about him, though. He gives me motivation to keep doing that – work as hard as I can because that’s how you become the best.”
That’s White the football player. It’s the other facets of White, the person, that make him so unique.
Much like Claiborne did when he was at LSU, White has used his status in the spotlight to deliver more of an impact.
Juggling stardom in three sports at Green Oaks High, White was the valedictorian of his class and has maintained a 3.0 grade-point average since arriving at LSU.
That’s only one small layer of how he leads by example, though.
In a social media-centric world where everything is so visible and college athletes are scrutinized for off-the-field actions, White never has shown up in the wrong headline.
“I just try to live my life right and make the best decisions I can,” White said. “I think about how anything I’m going to do affects my team, LSU and my family.”
Not preached as a sermon. Not any kind of PSA. That’s just who White is.
“He’s not putting on an act,” Claiborne said. “Every time we have conversations, it always comes back to how you have to do the little things, both in life and as a football player — be where you’re supposed to be, treat people with respect, do things the way you’re taught and coached.
“Those are the things you don’t always see pay off, but it’s not just about being a good football player. It’s also about being a great person.”
That element of White’s personality was as challenging as anything he has done in football.
In the summer of 2015, one of White’s closest friends, Shontae Armstrong, was one of eight people shot and injured during a drive-by shooting.
Armstrong is now paralyzed. A cousin was also one of the victims, taking a bullet that grazed his head.
“Coming from the environment I came from, you see things happen to people that you care for and love,” White said. “I know too many people who took the wrong approach and got into the wrong crowd. I wanted something different. I wanted to be an inspiration and do whatever I could to give kids a role model.”
Mission accomplished. Tigers coach Les Miles awarded the No. 18 jersey to White before his junior season, a symbol of how highly his teammates – who voted on the honor – and coaches regard him. Claiborne wore No. 18 his junior season.
Now the similarities between the friends figure to continue.
White eschewed entering the draft after last season, his least impactful since he got to LSU. But NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein, a strong proponent of White’s before 2015, hasn’t changed his tune, deeming White the most talented “mirror-and-match” cornerback in the
“White’s foot quickness and change-of-direction ability are elite on the college level,” Zierlein wrote for NFL.com in late June. “He’s a pure, man-cover cornerback. While the senior could line up outside on an NFL team, he might find himself as a slot corner with so much importance being shifted to the third cornerback spot.”
(You can follow Randy Rosetta on Twitter @RandyRosetta)
© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.