CHICAGO — James White says he doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight, and that’s the kind of humility many have come to expect from a player known for his selflessness. Goodness knows Wisconsin’s senior running back has been forced to do his measure of sharing over the course of his football career. So, yes, it’s probably for the best his patient personality has emerged given the circumstances.
In the backfield at St. Thomas Aquinas, a powerhouse high school football program in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he shared carries with teammate Giovani Bernard. Bernard became a standout at North Carolina and was taken in the second round of April’s NFL Draft, 37th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the backfield at Wisconsin, White divvied up touches with Montee Ball, who pushed passed him on the depth chart and became a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ball, too, was taken in the second round of April’s NFL Draft, 58th overall by the Denver Broncos.
Under a different set of circumstances, in almost any other high school or college program, White’s name would’ve already been the one up in lights. Instead, he has been a wingman, a valuable second piece forced to embrace the idea that sharing carries decreases the amount of wear on his body. That sharing carries provides his team with more offensive options. That sharing carries creates more competition for him as a player.
All of those ideas are no doubt true. Still, isn’t a guy entitled to be a little selfish after all he’s put into the program?
This season, White should have that chance. His situation has finally changed, and while there are carries to share, he’ll be the one at the top of the depth chart. The spotlight, it would appear, belongs to him.
“I’ve been waiting my turn for a long time,” White said during the Big Ten media days. “It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting on probably my whole career. So I’m going to show the world what I have.”
White has shown glimpses of what he has in three college seasons despite limited touches. He was named the consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. His 6.7 yards-per-carry average was the second-best in school history, and his rushing total was the fourth-best freshman mark at UW. Yet he still garnered the third-most carries on the team that season (156), behind senior John Clay (187) and sophomore Ball (163).
What happened next was something White couldn’t have foreseen. Ball shed 26 pounds that offseason, reported to fall camp as an entirely different player and ran his way into the starting role. He gained 1,923 yards rushing and scored 39 total touchdowns to tie the single-season FBS record — and earn himself a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist.
White, meanwhile, was relegated to the change-of-pace role in the backfield. He carried 141 times for 713 yards with six touchdowns. During a game against Illinois, he ran the ball just once.
“My sophomore year, I probably noticed my carries started to dwindle a little bit,” White said. “When I got into the game I was trying to do too much, trying to make too big of a play. Toward the end of the season I kind of found myself, trying to get four yards before I get 40. That’s what my running back coach says. That’s the motto I lived by and I still live by that now.”
White enters the season as the nation’s second-leading rusher among active running backs with 2,571 career yards despite making only two starts in 39 games. The fact a player of White’s talent has started so infrequently was a surprise to first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
“I did not know that until we got here,” Andersen said Thursday during a Big Ten media session. “And that is amazing. I’m excited for him to have that year, to kind of be his show. It’s going to be great. I had never put two and two together. It’s going to be fun for him to jog out there as the guy and start.”
White may not have been Wisconsin’s go-to guy in years past, but he has made a name for himself among competitors in the conference. Last season, he rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns against Minnesota in his best game of the year.
“He is explosive,” Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. “His change of direction, his lateral direction is something that as a guy who has to tackle him, you have to take that into account for when you go to hit him.”
Despite his high moments, questions linger about White. He has never carried more than 23 times in a game — and that came back in 2010 as a freshman against Michigan. He hasn’t carried more than 17 times in a game over the past two seasons.
Some believe redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon, whose combination of speed and strength more closely resembles Ball, will overtake White as the starter. Gordon carried just 62 times last season to White’s 125 carries and Ball’s 356 carries, but he is sure to garner a significant portion of touches in 2013.
White noted he wouldn’t change who he was as a person or player regardless of how many touches he earns. He has had to fight for carries before, and he’ll continue to stay patient, belief in himself and let his play do his talking.
“I fly under the radar sometimes,” White said. “But I kind of like it that way. It gives you some more added motivation and allows you to push yourself throughout the season and sneak up on people and really catch their eye when they’re not really looking at you all the time.”
This season, the college football world is sure to be watching as White finally controls the spotlight.