NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
It’s never been about size or straight-line speed for James White. For the 5’10”, 205-pound running back, who clocked a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, it’s been about what’s not measured by tape, scale or stopwatch.
Vision, patience and balance.
Those are the tools White countered with when the competition caught up. He may never again be the most powerful player on the football field. He’ll likely never be the fastest one, either.
In a sense, he doesn’t have to be.
The 22-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native has a way of seeing rush lanes before they present themselves. And whether it be on a handoff, a direct snap, a reception or a kick return, he has revealed the timeliness, the low center of gravity and the short-area quickness to get through them.
The fourth-round draft pick has continued to get through them as a member of the New England Patriots this summer.
It hinges on how his game translates.
White has broken off long gains in full-contact 11-on-11 drills during the team’s training camp practices. He’s fielded kickoffs. He’s even made his presence felt as a receiver out of the backfield and out wide, drawing semblance to his Patriots teammate, Shane Vereen.
“I’ve learned a lot. He’s a guy that has a similar style as me,” White said of Vereen after practice on July 26. “I go out there and ask what he sees on plays so I can go out there and add it to my game.”
Adding to his game has been part of the process. He may not possess the open-field acceleration of his fourth-year teammate, but White runs with the same intentions.
That has come to light on the fields behind Gillette Stadium over the last two weeks. He’s assimilated to the offense as well as any rookie back could be expected to. He’s earned the reps that come along with it.
And the respect of his fellow backs has followed.
“I say it every year, man, I love my group. I really do,” said Stevan Ridley after practice July 27. “And I’d say particularly, and not to single out one guy, but James has come in and he’s done an awesome job.”
The job White’s done in full-pads practices has been noteworthy, but it’s far from a revelation.
He was the same player for four seasons with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Though he only started 14 career games there – with two coming as a slot receiver – No. 20 played in 52. By the end of his final one, he was third in the Wisconsin record books with 45 rushing touchdowns and third with 48 total touchdowns. He was fourth all-time in school history with 4,015 rushing yards and fourth with 5,450 all-purpose yards.
He was the eighth Badgers rusher to amass multiple 1,000-yard seasons. He was the owner of 18 career 100-yard rushing games and just two fumbles. And he was the new standard, setting a program mark with 6.24 yards per attempt.
He was, however, a draft afterthought – the byproduct of a road-grading offensive line and a high-volume ground attack. He was in a rotation with the likes of Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon – a change-of-pace back. And he was undersized – one who played the part but lacked the outstanding traits to look the role.
None of that mattered on May 10, though.
White was a prospect head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio wanted at pick 130 overall. His categorization as either a third-down back or a three-down back wasn’t the reason why.
It was how he won.
A mindful runner, one who could slow the game down at full speed, White stood apart on New England’s draft board.
Over the course of his Badgers career, he trusted his eyes and the blocks ahead of him. He showed the suddenness to turn the corner and extend plays, as evidenced in DraftBreakdown.com’s film archives.
White’s vision, along with his quick feet and lateral flexibility, partly explain how he created space over his tenure at Wisconsin. Even though his short strides kept him from being viewed as a next-gear ball-carrier, the control he ran with helped him separate in other ways.
Not only when he saw a crease along the edge of the line, shifting through it.
Yet also when he saw a crease along the interior of it.
That is where White has gone against the grain of expectations. Where he’s turned negatives into positives. Where his knee-bending stutter moves have seen him set up runs, as well as the defense, right out of the exchange.
It’s hard to teach those characteristics – the way his moves assemble the defense. Even so, those moves will never carve him in the mold of a prototypical between-the-tackles, goal-line runner.
That reality has been a test for White. He’s been met at the line on 3rd-and-short. He’s been bitten by the teeth of defensive fronts down in the red zone. He’s been brought down for losses when his subtleties were too subtle.
All backs experience the same defeat at some point. Those experiences have been packed with White as he travels from the Big Ten to the AFC East. And his rugged, low-to-the-ground build and field awareness has been brought along as well.
Those qualities have brought him through contact before.
They’ve allowed him to play larger than his stature. They’ve allowed him to play faster than his timed speed. And they’ve allowed him to knife him through defenders from two yards out.
And those qualities, in tandem with the stability in which he turns, stops and starts, have allowed him to swing around defenders from 66 yards out.
Now, perhaps full-house backfields, motioning receivers, pulling guards and misdirection plays kept defenses honest when facing White in the past. Perhaps those facades mitigated his shortcomings to a certain extent.
Yet while he wasn’t a bell cow in Madison, he proved he didn’t need all 754 of his touches to impact the game.
Sometimes he just needed one.