MADISON, Wis. -- Is this season James White's chance to finally be The Man at Wisconsin?
Standing outside Wisconsin's locker room earlier this spring, White began to answer the question when a passer-by interrupted him.
"You da man!" new Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.
White burst into laughter, flashed his big smile, looked down and shook his head. Then he responded in typical fashion.
"No, I don't treat it that way," he said. "We have great competition going on in the running back room. Everybody wants that starting spot, so it's going to make each and every one of us better."
The truth is White could be The Man this season. He also could share carries with Melvin Gordon, who emerged late last fall as a significant contributor for Wisconsin's rushing attack. It's also possible Gordon, a sophomore that some believe has a higher ceiling than any recent Badgers back, moves into a featured role ahead of White. Gordon racked up 216 yards on only nine carries in Wisconsin's blowout of Nebraska in last year's Big Ten championship.
"Who's 1, who's 2? Not worried about that just yet," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.
White certainly prefers Door No. 1, but you can be sure he'll react the same way regardless of what happens -- with a big smile on his face. At almost any other program, a running back with White's credentials -- 2,571 career rush yards, 32 career touchdowns, nine career 100-yard rushing performance -- would be a sure-fire starter, case closed. But Wisconsin isn't a normal program at the running back position. No one understands this better than White. No one embraces it better, either.
"It's a team sport and everybody can't be on the field at the same time," White said. "Everybody has to know their role on the team, and when you get your chance, you've got to take advantage of it. Sometimes you have to wait your turn, and at the same time, you have to attack each day."
White has done quite a bit of waiting the past two seasons after earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2010, when he rushed for a team-high 1,052 yards and recorded career bests in yards, carries (156) and rushing touchdowns (14). Montee Ball, who emerged down the stretch in 2010, claimed a featured role the following season, leading the FBS in rushing (1,923 yards) and tying Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record for touchdowns (39). Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011 and somewhat surprisingly returned to Wisconsin for his senior season, where he once again started and earned the Doak Walker Award.
Ball's emergence didn't spark anger or jealousy in White, who seemingly lacks both traits. White not only supported Ball on the field and accepted his role -- combining for 2,225 all-purpose yards -- but was one of his best friends off of it. A similar bond is developing between Gordon and White, whose Twitter page includes a photo of himself, Ball, Gordon and fullback Derek Watt in the locker room.
"They understand that they need each other," Andersen said. "As much as they're the same as backs, they're different as backs. They're both young men who understand they can make each other better."
Ball and White accepted Gordon as one of their own last season. Things have carried over with White and Gordon, and the other backs.
"We definitely compete with each other, but we're really good friends off of the field," Gordon said. "It's just his character and what type of guy he is. He's always in a good mood. To be honest, I don't think I've ever seen him upset.
"Just a friendly dude."
White's genial demeanor shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of fire. He wants to be the starter. And he knows his career could have taken a different arc elsewhere, especially after his freshman season.
"That goes through everybody's mind, that if you would have went somewhere else, you could have started four years," White said. "But I wouldn't change it. I learned a lot over these past three years, and I'll use my experiences to the best of my ability and help lead this team this year."
When Ludwig reviewed tape from the past two seasons, two players kept coming up on the screen: White and senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. Ludwig calls White and Gordon a "good 1-2 punch," and he's exploring ways to get both men on the field together.
White's receiving skills -- he has 34 career receptions for 370 yards and a touchdown -- could pay off in a slot role for Ludwig's offense.
"That's coming, and he knows that," Ludwig said. "We have some background of doing that with some of those running backs."
White's speed always has jumped out more than his size (5-foot-10, 197), and his versatility as a dual-threat back could improve his stock for the NFL.
"It definitely helps when you're trying to go to the next level," he said. "You have to be versatile, pass-protect, get out on routes, catch the ball and make defenders miss."
No matter what role White has this year or next, one thing is clear. He'll accept it with a smile.