Wisconsin junior running back James White has had his fair share playing in a crowded backfield during his already-illustrious football career.
In his time at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., White played alongside current North Carolina Tar Heels redshirt sophomore running back Giovani Bernard.
Bernard was the No.2-ranked running back out of Florida by the Orlando Sun-Sentinel and rushed for over 1,500 yards in his junior season. He has put up 822 yards on just 103 attempts—good for 7.7 yards per carry—while scoring eight touchdowns for the 5-3 Tar Heels.
White rushed for 979 yards his senior year and received a little extra exposure when Bernard went down with an injury.
Still, White’s high school career bears a lot of resemblance with his time with the Badgers. His ability to make the most of his oftentimes scattered opportunities was first understood when playing with Bernard.
“Yeah, same thing,” White said, laughing. “We had a lot of talent in our backfield. We’d score just like that.
“So when I got carries… [I would] just make something out of it,” he said.
White came into the Badger program behind former running back John Clay and then-sophomore Montee Ball on the depth chart. But an impressive fall camp allowed White to jump ahead of Ball and essentially split time with the Clay and his old-school running style.
When Clay was hurt late in the 2010 season, Ball exploded. He ended up with 996 yards on the season. White led the trio with 1,052 rushing yards and Clay finished with 1,012.
But with Ball’s explosion continuing into last season, White faded and admitted it tough to see fewer opportunities just one year after rushing for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman.
Still, he finished with 713 rushing yards, but his yards-per-carry average dipped to 5.1—still considered superb on any team—and his involvement in clutch situations was scarce.
This season, redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon has been added to the backfield. Though Gordon’s involvement has dipped slightly from earlier in the season, White still has learned to be patient and understading.
“I mean, [the coaches] are going to play the best people,” White said. “So you have to produce. That’s pretty much how we treat it out there. Whenever you get your touches, just make the most of it.”
And produce he has. White has run for 470 yards this season, 299 of which have come over the past two weeks.
It was last week when Wisconsin experimented with a formation they call the “Barge formation,” a wildcat-type lineup featuring White in an empty backfield and seven or eight offensive linemen up front. He admitted he never pictured himself running such a formation during his time here.
“We always joked about it last year when coach Chryst was here,” White said. “He joked about it, but he never actually put it in, so during the practices earlier this season we wanted to make it work so we could put it in the game.”
White ran a similar wildcat-type formation in high school, one with a little added spice compared to the “Barge.”
“It [was] a little different,” White said. “I kind of faked [the ball] to other people.”
But it still comes down to simply finding the gaps.
“It’s still kind of just running wherever you see a hole,” he said.
White’s resurgence comes at a perfect time, as the Badgers finally host sudden rival Michigan State in Camp Randall this Saturday.
“It’ll be pretty cool to get them in front of our fans,” he said. “They’ll come ready to play and so will we.”