When UW needed him, White was there
OCT 06, 2012 8:45p ET
Then, the cheers came louder and longer for someone else.
The slide from the top of the totem pole is never easy. White had been passed up by teammate Montee Ball, who last season took the carries and quickly transformed into a Heisman Trophy finalist. And the sudden demotion left White wondering what had gone wrong.
"It's tough," White said. "Any player on the team, you always want to be out on the field trying to contribute. I just tried to stay level-headed, cheer on my teammates. I know they're capable of winning the game. But when I get my opportunities, I always want to take advantage of it."
White's opportunities have diminished, but he hasn't stopped pursuing improvement. On Saturday, he played one of his best games of the season during Wisconsin's 31-14 victory against Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium. White carried six times for 42 yards. He also caught a screen pass that went for a 62-yard, momentum-swinging touchdown in the second quarter.
Just like that, the cheers returned, aimed directly at White.
"He deserved it," Ball said. "He's always just kept his head down in a good way. Not pointing the finger. Just kept grinding in practice."
White's drop in production the past two seasons, of course, is a direct result of Ball's increase in production. The two shared carries in the backfield two years ago, when White was a freshman out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Ball a sophomore from Wentzville, Mo.
Both had wonderfully fruitful seasons. But White was better.
He carried 156 times for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Ball gained 996 yards with 18 touchdowns and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt.
White was named the consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year. His 6.7 yards per carry were the second-best in school history, and his rushing total was the fourth-best ever in the program.
What happened next was something White couldn't have foreseen. Ball shed 26 pounds that off-season, 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. In last season's game against Illinois, he ran the ball just once.
"I can only imagine how frustrated he was," Ball said. "That's how the game goes, and I'm glad to see that he stuck with it and kept fighting."
White sought introspection to figure out where the 1,000-yard rusher from his freshman season went.
"You kind of try looking at things you did back then and see what you're doing different," White said. "Seeing the things you could have done better then and now. Just trying to get better in practice is one thing I've been trying to work on — practicing that much harder because it makes the game that much easier."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said his plan this season was to divvy up touches among Ball, White and third-stringer Melvin Gordon. Ideally, Ball would touch the ball 25 times per game, White 15 and Gordon 10.
Through five games, White had touched the ball 35 times — an average of seven per game.
Ball, who lives with White and is one of his best friends, offered encouragement.
"James knows that things aren't always going to go your way," Ball said. "You've just got to make sure to stick with it. But what I made sure I was doing was just staying by his side. Playing video games with him, keep joking around with him to make sure he keeps his head up."
On Saturday, White again touched the ball just seven times. Ball touched the ball 20 times, including 19 rushes for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
But White contributed perhaps the biggest play of the game on his 62-yard touchdown reception, which tied the score at 7-7 with 3:26 remaining in the second quarter. It was the longest reception of White's career and his first career receiving score at Wisconsin. It also was the Badgers' longest play from scrimmage this season.
"Right when I was throwing it, I thought, ‘Oh, this could be a good play,' " said Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave, who dumped off the ball to White. "I saw the linemen in front of him, so I knew he'd be able to catch the ball and turn upfield.
"When he has a chance to see what he's running at and is in the open field, he's a very good player."
Bielema said he told running backs coach Thomas Hammock during the week that he wanted White to touch the ball more because of his playmaking ability.
"I made a comment to Coach Hammock and the offensive guys: ‘I don't want to be talking about not giving reps on Sundays. I want to see it happen on Saturday,' " Bielema said. "Obviously, to get him involved on that play was critical."
White won't register enough carries to match his statistics from two seasons ago. But he appears to have found some sense of peace with his place on the team. When he earns his touches — however many might come his way — he'll be ready, just as he was Saturday.
"I feel I can do anything the coaches tell me to do," White said. "Whatever type of run it is, outside, inside, I just stay focused, read my keys, and I can be successful with any type of run they want to give to me."
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