Ever since he first stepped foot on campus, James White has been labeled as second-best. As a freshman, White was tabbed as the second running back behind then-returning 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay. A year later, he found himself slotted behind the record-breaking stats of Montee Ball.
Once again, in his junior season, White finds himself trailing the preseason Heisman candidate Ball on the depth chart. Though he has spent all three years of his career at Wisconsin as the second best running back, White is second to none at fitting into his role as a Badger.
Throughout his years at Wisconsin, White has taken on and expanded roles such as the fast-paced backup that complemented John Clay, the sure-handed and explosive kick returner and the third-down back that can catch passes out of the backfield. Put them all together, and you now have an experienced junior running back who is integral in the success of the Badgers’ offense.
When it comes to his teammates, they are rarely surprised by the abilities he possesses on the football field.
“James does it all, to be honest. We call him ‘the natural,’” redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon said of his elder teammate. “It probably takes me and Montee [Ball] a couple of reps to do something. For James, it’s one time.”
It is an easy thing to understand, White’s innate aptitude for success as a running back. He has always made the most of limited opportunities because, as he said, “You never know when you’re going to get the ball again.”
White attended Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he was yet again considered second-best. Throughout his years at Aquinas, White trailed Giovani Bernard, who currently starts at tailback at North Carolina.
White was a three-star recruit, while Bernard was a four-star and the starter. But suddenly, a hamstring injury to Bernard thrust White into the starting role. Just a year later, White was at Wisconsin and back to starting games on the bench. But the second running back position at Wisconsin is different than many other football programs across the nation. It can be far more glorious.
White was given the third-most carries his freshman year, and with all 156 of them, he tallied the most yards on the team (1,052) and second most touchdowns (14).
In his second year, with less than half the carries Ball was given, White still garnered 713 yards and six touchdowns. And now, in 2012, even as his carry total continues to decrease and he remains slotted as the backup on the depth chart, White continues to appreciate the chances he is given.
“I’ve enjoyed [the role],” White said. “So many people want to be in the shoes that I am in right now, so I’m blessed with the opportunities I have and try to take advantage of them.”
The three running back rotation known to the program throughout the years generally features a lead back, but also highlights the best each back has to offer.
White has consistently been the intermediary in the Badgers’ rotational schema, stemming largely out of his lacking a defined running back style. While he calls himself the “quick-on-my-feet” type of running back, his pass-catching abilities have consistently found him with more receiving yards than rushing yards.
His skill set once again places him in between Ball and Gordon, but running backs coach Tom Hammock recognized White as a balanced back who handles everything thrown his way.
“I think he has equally good traits of running and receiving; he is just a good football player,” Hammock said of White. “We need to find more ways of getting him on the football field.”
White took on an increased role in the victory over Illinois last Saturday, gaining the workload over Ball and Gordon on select drives, but was only given six carries. His seven yards per carry didn’t come as a surprise because he has averaged 5.8 throughout his Wisconsin career. His impact, however, was considerably greater than a typical six carries.
White took just one reception out of the Badger backfield that game and did what he has always done with limited opportunities — shine. He turned upfield after receiving a short toss from quarterback Joel Stave and used some timely blocking to a 62-yard offense-igniting touchdown catch. His seven touches amassed 104 total yards, more than 14 yards per touch, stats that could earn him a starting job if only he wasn’t complementing the equally-viable Ball.
Looking into the 2013 season, the emergence of Gordon, medically redshirted Vontae Jackson and additional recruits threaten White’s quest to be a lead back once again. His senior year will be his last and likely best chance to be a starter and finally lose the tag of being second best.
When asked about the prospect of White eventually becoming a starting running back, Hammock quickly stated, “No question about it,” and it should be easy to understand. He is the natural.
Follow Sean on Twitter