White belongs among Badgers' best backs

MADISON, Wis. -- James White often hasn't been the central character in The James White Story at Wisconsin. Maybe it's time for that to change.

Any discussion of White quickly drifts to the other running backs he has played alongside with the Badgers. As a freshman, he was part of the three-headed monster with John Clay and Montee Ball. As a sophomore, he took a backseat as Ball ran his way into the record books and landed a seat at the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York. Last season, White once again played understudy to Ball, who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back. For the first half of this season, White's teammate Melvin Gordon received the accolades and adulation after dazzling fans with long touchdown runs.

"I try to be selfless," he said. "Whether it's me getting the ball, whether it's me blocking, whether it's me catching or cheering on my team, I'm going to do whatever I can to motivate these guys."

Great teammate. Unselfish. Versatile. Dependable. Durable. Willing to accept different roles. These terms have characterized White at Wisconsin. That's fine. They're accurate.

But another label should be attached to White as he wraps up a truly unique college career: the most complete back in recent team history.

He runs with power and speed, delivers devastating cuts in the hole, catches passes out of the backfield and picks up blitzes. If the team needs a kickoff returned, he's available, too (he had 38 returns between 2010-12).

"He should be up there with anyone," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "[Ron] Dayne, [Brian] Calhoun, Montee, [Terrell] Fletcher and even John Clay. It's hard to have a better career than James has had here the last four years."

To fully appreciate White's contributions at Wisconsin, you can't concentrate on a single play or a single season. Sure, he has reached the necessary milestones, from recording a 1,000-yard season (in 2010) to earning awards (2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, second-team All-Big Ten honors that year), but his career path hasn't spiked like those of other Badgers backs.

The totality of White's career shows a player who has averaged more than 5 yards per carry all four seasons -- more than 6 yards in 2010, 2011 and so far this year. It shows a player who will record 10 or more rushing touchdowns for the third time with his next trip to the end zone. It shows a player who has eclipsed 1,000 all-purpose yards in all four seasons and could approach his freshman-year total of 1,469 with a strong finish to this season. It shows a player with 46 total touchdowns, tied for third on Wisconsin's all-time list behind Ball (81) and Dayne (73), and 43 rushing touchdowns, two shy of third place on the team's career chart.

It also shows a player who doesn't hurt his team. White hasn't lost a fumble in his last 323 touches. He has just two lost fumbles in 669 career touches (572 rushes, 60 receptions, 37 kick returns).

And despite playing a position where injuries often take a toll, White has missed just two games in his career.

"He does it all," Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave said. "Everything you need done on offense, it'll get done, and it'll get done well from the running back position. He obviously can run the ball well, he doesn't fumble, he's great in pass protection, he's got tremendous hands, he's always in the right spot in the routes.

"He's just an easy guy to play with."

The essence of White came through in Saturday's win against BYU. He had 147 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries (6.4 ypc). He had a career-high six receptions for 47 yards and a score. He scored all three Wisconsin touchdowns in the game, accounted for 29 of the team's offensive touches and did the "U Dub Step" three times with Gordon.

So what did Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen single out about White's performance afterward? A block against a blitzing BYU cornerback on a third-down play late in the first half.

"There's no way Joel gets that ball off [if White doesn't make the block]," Andersen said. "James scanned it, came back, looked across the protection and bumped the corner right off. Those plays are huge plays."

They're the types of plays White has made throughout his career, regardless of his role, the other backs or the system he's in.

"He's done a great job with the way protection has changed year after year with the new coaching staff," Stave said. "He does a great job knowing who he's got and holding them down."

Five plays later, Stave found White for a 5-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left in the half. Naturally, White began the play blocking a linebacker and wasn't even an option as a receiver ... until he was.

"I wasn't even supposed to go out on a route," White said. "I just heard the crowd yell and it sounded like Joel was scrambling, so I was like, 'I might as well just leak out.' Right when I turned around, the ball was coming to me."

White, who didn't start a game at running back until the 2013 opener, is quietly putting together a signature senior season. He's on pace to eclipse his top rushing total and already has career highs for receptions (23) and receiving yards (208). While Gordon's production has dropped off a bit, White has 478 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in his last four games.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior also has been a model of consistency in games.

White is driven by two factors these days: the ticking clock on his time at Wisconsin, and his opportunity to showcase his talents for April's NFL draft.

"He has a big desire to play at the next level, and that's OK," Andersen said. "There's nothing wrong with talking about that ... and he's got to play well to have that opportunity. So a lot of things drive James, but the No. 1 thing is the University of Wisconsin and getting victories with his teammates."

At least four more victories are possible for White, as Wisconsin's most complete back completes his story and claims a place in team history.