James White gives Wisconsin 'third gear'

Like most standout players for Florida prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas, James White had options for college, and good ones.

The running back could have picked a place and shot to the top of the depth chart as soon as he set foot on campus.

"I probably would have had more playing time [elsewhere], but I wasn't really looking for something like that," White said. "I wanted to go somewhere where I could earn my way to the [top] spot."

He got his wish by choosing to play for Wisconsin.

The Badgers were bringing back John Clay, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, as well as veteran reserve Zach Brown and promising sophomore Montee Ball, who backed up Clay at times in 2009. When White arrived for camp in August, he seemed destined for a redshirt season.

After practices started, it became clear White would have none of that.

He surged to No. 3 on the depth chart with an impressive preseason performance. White would be playing in 2010, while Brown, a senior, is the running back planning to redshirt.

White had 11 carries for 59 yards in the season opener at UNLV, as Wisconsin rotated its top three backs. He also caught three passes for 37 yards.

"I didn't expect it," White said of his rapid rise. "I really didn't know what was going to happen. If I had to wait my turn, I didn't have a problem with that."

Coach Bret Bielema knew what he had in White from a speed and athleticism standpoint, but the freshman also showed excellent instincts early in camp. White admitted the blocking assignments were tough at first, but he picked it up by the end of the preseason. He also showed potential on special teams and is listed as the team's No. 2 punt returner behind David Gilreath.

At 5-10 and 198 pounds, White doesn't fit the mold at Wisconsin, which has produced big backs like Clay, P.J. Hill and former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. He looks like a mascot next to Clay (6-1, 255) and Ball (5-11, 236).

And that's why he complements them so well.

"I'd probably describe it as first, second and third gear," Bielema said. "John is a first-down back that can give you a little bit of everything. He's got a power, he does a great job of hitting it up inside, and also has the ability to break it away. Montee is maybe a little bit more on the speed-oriented side, although he can hit it up inside and has been good for us on second and third down.

"And then James is your third-gear guy. He's definitely the fastest of the crew, very shifty, very capable of making guys miss. Even if you don't block a guy and there's still guys standing free, you’re not necessarily going to tackle him."

Informed he's being called Wisconsin's third gear, White laughs. But he doesn't deny it.

"They call me a change-of-pace guy," he said. "I'm probably a step or two quicker than both Montee and Clay. I'll come in and loosen them up, and then they come in and pound 'em.

"It's a great combination."