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He has special knack

Patriots’ White gets kicks from getting there first

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 24, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The kickoff might as well be a starter’s pistol.

Dane Fletcher is always dying to get downfield. So are Matthew Slater, Kyle Arrington, and Josh Barrett. Each of them trying to be the first to make a play.

“It’s not just kick coverage,’’ Fletcher said. “It’s always a race to the rock.’’

The loser is almost always the poor soul returning the kick. The winner, more often than not, is Patriot Tracy White.

“The desire is I want to be the first guy,’’ White said. “Put it like this, I want everything. I want it all. If I can get that tackle, I’m going to try to get there before you.’’

Slater has reviewed film more than a few times and come back shocked after seeing a 230-pound linebacker weaving like a police car to get to the football.

“Man!’’ Slater tends to say to himself. “Tracy’s the fastest linebacker on this team!’’

Over the course of his nine-year career, White has made special teams his specialty. He’s racked up 115 special-teams tackles, including three in the first two games of this season. He finished with a career-high 18 last season, and is looking to add on tomorrow when the Patriots visit the Buffalo Bills.

“We were talking about it today,’’ Fletcher said. “Who’s going to get there in the Buffalo game? Obviously, I feel like I’m going to get more tackles than him this game.’’

Fletcher couldn’t say it without laughing.

“Nah, he usually beats me.’’

Last week against the Chargers, White made two big plays on special teams. On the opening kickoff, Richard Goodman decided to bring it out from 4 yards deep in his end zone, and got clocked by White at the 20-yard line. In the fourth quarter, White honed in again on Goodman, who fielded the kick at the 1 and was leveled by White at the 13.

White is meticulous when it comes to studying opponents’ tendencies. But the majority of his success comes from playing the game at warp speed.

“The experience that he has, the knowledge that he has of special teams, the guy’s a great player,’’ Slater said. “I think he’s one of the best cover guys in this league, no doubt.’’

That being said, players don’t dream of being standouts on special teams. And after leaving Howard University as the school’s all-time leading tackler, White was looking to be a full-time linebacker.

“Coming out, everybody wants to play offense or defense,’’ White said. “Special teams, I was put into that role when I first got in.’’

White’s gift was his speed (he was clocked at 4.48 seconds for the 40 coming out of college) and his curse was his lack of size (6 feet, 236 pounds at the time, smaller than some running backs).

He was passed over in the 2003 draft, and landed as a rookie free agent in Seattle, where coach Mike Holmgren put him on special teams.

“That was my thing,’’ White said. “I made plays on that. Each year, I’d still fight to try to get on defense, but the more and more the years went by, that’s what people viewed me as.’’

Things work out differently for different players. Sam Mills was 5-9, 229. Scouts wore out the game tapes of the linebacker from his days at Montclair State in New Jersey, but scattered when they found out how small he was. He played 12 seasons and went to five Pro Bowls.

“He was Mighty Mouse,’’ former teammate Rickey Jackson once said. “He’d hit you hard as he could every time he hit you.’’

At 5-10, London Fletcher of the Redskins is a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Giants rookie linebacker Greg Jones (6-0, 248) started this season as a special-teamer, but after Jonathan Goff was lost for the year with a torn knee ligament, Jones was elevated to starting middle linebacker.

White, however, has had to use special teams to leave his mark.

“If that’s what I’ve got to do, I try to be the best at what I do,’’ he said. “If they want me to play special teams, that’s what I’m going to do.’’

White has played for five teams, and has a way of making an impression.

When he left the Packers in 2008, he left a crater in their special teams so deep that one fan website called it “The Curse of Tracy White.’’

If he viewed special teams as a slight before, he clearly understands his value now.

“I don’t really mind now,’’ White said. “If you’ve got a fast guy on special teams and he’s got pretty good size, he can be a dangerous person if he becomes smart and knows how to recognize other people’s schemes. That’s what I did. I became smart at it, and the smarter you get the faster you play.

“Special teams, I’ve got to be the best. I want to be the best on every team I go to. I want to be that guy the other team says, ‘We’ve got to stop him.’ ’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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