Race never ends for White, Badger backs

MADISON, Wis. -- At some point before toe meets football Saturday, Wisconsin assistant Thomas Hammock will gather the Badger running backs and ask a simple question: Who should start?

You may think Hammock is shirking his primary responsibility as a talent evaluator. That's hardly the case.

For one thing, he retains "51 percent" of the vote, so if the players are off track, he'll overrule them.

The players assign number values to their choices: three for their preferred starter, two for the backup and one for the third stringer. They can vote for themselves. The back with the most points is endorsed to start.

"I want it to come from them," Hammock told ESPN.com. "It's good as a player when you hear what your teammates think about you. That's a positive. Players know who has been performing.

"Sometimes, players can fool coaches, but they can't fool their teammates."

Barring a late surprise, senior James White will be this week's nominee and make his first career start at running back Saturday against Massachusetts.

"It's pretty crazy to think about," White said.

Think about it: White is a former Big Ten Freshman of the Year with 3,563 career all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns to his name. His 2,571 career rushing yards rank second in the FBS among active running backs, trailing only Silas Redd, who has started for two teams (USC and Penn State).

And yet White's only two career starts came at slot receiver last season.

"It is crazy," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "Let's be honest, he's got the skill set to start anywhere. That just shows you how good the backs are that come here."

White has finally reached the starting blocks, but the race is just beginning. He hears the stutter-steps behind him from Gordon, an explosive sophomore who averaged 10 yards per carry last season, and freshman Corey Clement, who impressed throughout preseason camp.

At Wisconsin, the starter's tag can be peeled off at any time. All it takes is a different answer to Hammock's question.

"Every year, I say it's about performance, not seniority," Hammock said. "If you perform well, you deserve that opportunity."

White not only has seniority in Wisconsin's running back room, but seniority in competing for carries. Few FBS backs with White's credentials have waited longer for the spotlight or played behind stronger competitors.

Two of the first three running backs selected in April's NFL draft once called White their understudy. White played behind former North Carolina star Giovani Bernard at Florida prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. He backed up Montee Ball the last two years at Wisconsin.

"James has always had other running backs to compete with," said White's father, Tyrone. "That gave him the strength and the experience to know, 'Hey, no matter where I go, there's people trying to take my job.'

"You can run, but you can't run from competition."

White looked like the one who would be taking jobs in 2010, when he led Wisconsin in rush yards (1,052) and all-purpose yards (1,469) and recorded the second-best yards-per-carry average (6.74) in team history. He formed a three-headed rushing attack with Ball and John Clay, the 2009 Big Ten offensive player of the year, but appeared to have the inside track for a leading role in 2011, especially after Clay opted to skip his final season.

Instead, Ball outperformed White for the top job, became an All-American and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. White had 339 fewer rush yards and eight fewer rushing touchdowns (6).

"Of course, I wanted to be the starter," White said. "I came out, I competed, I felt like I did a great job, but they chose Montee, so I couldn't pout."

He remained positive in the locker room, but he also considered leaving it.

"When you don't play that much, the first thought is, 'Man, I'm gonna get up outta here,' " White said.

White faced a similar dilemma in high school when he competed not only with Bernard but several other backs. He ended up staying.

As Ball blossomed at Wisconsin, White had people telling him to move on, even his older brother, Tyrone Jr.

"I'm very amazed at the fact that he stayed," said Tyrone Sr., who coached James in pee-wee football. "We had to sit down and explain life to him. Sometimes you have to to wait for your opportunity. When you get it, you take advantage.

"He persevered. I'm very proud of it."

Hammock admits that White's accomplishments at Wisconsin "can go unnoticed or be under-appreciated." When NFL scouts ask Hammock about White, they point out that White never has had to be the bell cow.

"In this day and age, you don't need to be," Hammock said. "Most [NFL teams] are using multiple backs. He's good in the pass game, he can be a good special-teams performer, he can do it all. He's going to find a way to get it done."

The constant competition could make a player like White bitter toward his challengers. White, meanwhile, calls Bernard and Ball two of his closest friends.

Bernard moved in with White and his family for stretches of high school because of hardships in his own family. White and Ball were roommates at Wisconsin, and White has built a similar bond with Gordon, who describes White as a "real cool dude" with a "contagious laugh."

"My whole time here, I've seen him upset three or four times maybe," Gordon said. "That's good, playing the sport we play."

Gordon is White's primary competitor, and some expect the 6-foot-1, 207-pound sophomore to outshine White this season.

In last year's Big Ten championship against Nebraska, Gordon galloped for 216 yards on just nine carries. He had 80 rush yards or more in four games, despite never logging more than 10 carries.

"He has a lot of potential," Hammock said. "As a coach, you sit there and say, 'If this kid got 20 carries, what would he do?' "

White hopes it won't come to that. He is known for being a great teammate, friendly and positive. But a competitive streak runs through him, too.

"It probably goes a little bit over their heads," he said. "I come out here and compete, man. I always train like I'm the starter."

After Saturday, White won't have to train like the starter any more. But in Wisconsin's running back room, term limits are short.

White knows that better than anyone.