Wisconsin's James White got an idea of what next year might be like during the first part of the Badgers' training camp.
With starting tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball sidelined after his attack, White took on more reps carrying the ball and leading the offense. Ball returned to practice Monday, albeit in a limited role. He should be ready for the start of the season, which means White likely will head back to his job as Ball's understudy for his junior season.
Not many teams have the luxury of bringing a former 1,000-yard rusher off the bench. Not all running backs would be happy in that situation. But White accepts his status as possibly the nation's top backup tailback, a title cemented when Ball decided to return for his senior season.
"When he came back, that just makes our team that much better," White told ESPN.com. "We work hard, we compete with each other in practice and we push each other. With him back, it's only going to make me a better player."
White said his goal this season is "just helping the team in as many ways as possible." Part of that means a new role in the offense.
Beginning this spring, Wisconsin coaches experimented with him as a slot receiver. He can line up as a running back and go into motion or start off in the slot. Lately in training camp, White says he's been spending about every other play at receiver.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "The coaches have a lot of trust in me to get out there and work on something different besides just playing in the backfield. It's not too different, since we caught the ball in the past. The routes just have to be a little sharper, and it's a little different catching it from the quarterback at a distance."
The Badgers' enviable depth gives them license to get creative with their options. In addition to Ball and White, redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon continues to turn heads. Bret Bielema has said Gordon may be the most talented running back he's had.
And given how powerful the Wisconsin offense is, there will be opportunities for touches outside of Ball. White ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 156 attempts in 2010. Last year, he got 141 carries, but his numbers went down to 713 yards and six touchdowns.
Running backs coach Thomas Hammock told reporters on Sunday that the Badgers ran a lot more inside power zone plays in 2011, whereas they used more plays to get White on the perimeter the previous year. While employing him at receiver will help get him in more open spaces, the 5-foot-9, 197-pound White knows he needs to be tougher between the tackles, as Ball was a year ago.
"I've been working on running more physical," he said. "It's a mindset. It's about running every play in practice as hard as you work in the game, to run through tackles and make people miss. It's not always about how big you are; it's just a mindset. And I'm very capable of doing that."
White is probably capable of starting for most Big Ten teams. Instead, he'll happily play second fiddle to Ball again while helping out on special teams and other areas when needed. Maybe it will be his team as a senior. Or possibly sooner.
"We have a lot of talent at the running back position, and we're all out here working hard," he said. "We've gotten a little bit more reps with Montee out, and you have to take advantage of that because you never know when somebody is going to go down."