Wisconsin's James White hopes to follow friend's path into NFL Draft
Wisconsin running back James White is best friends with UNC running back Gio Bernard, who will be selected in this week's NFL Draft. White is hoping to take a similar path into the 2014 draft after backing up Bernard in high school and Montee Ball in college.
MADISON, Wis. -- James White sees a lot of himself in Gio Bernard. When they were teammates at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, they’d share spin-move secrets, discuss when to make cuts in the open field or best positions for the screen pass -- usually over video games.
In the house, where Bernard lived with White’s family for a year, White’s mother, Lisa, treated the two equally. If Bernard needed a meal, she’d pay. If he needed a ride, she’d drive.
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That’s why White, positioned for a breakout as Wisconsin's senior running back, feels a little like he’s getting drafted this week, even if he must wait a year.
Bernard, an elusive running back/punt returner out of UNC, who was selected in the second round -- No. 37 overall -- in the NFL Draft on Friday.
Bernard’s backstory is well-documented. The family struggled emotionally and financially after Bernard’s mother, Josette Liberious, died of cancer in 1999.
His father, Yven, lived in a small apartment in the Fort Lauderdale area while Bernard lived with a nearby family for stability.
NFL Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter took an interest in Bernard, who played with Carter’s son, Duron Carter, in the South Florida youth football circuit. Carter helped usher Bernard into Aquinas, a private-school powerhouse and NFL pipeline.
Yven's apartment in Boynton Beach was too far from the campus, so Bernard lived with White, whom he also met through youth football, their entire senior year.
Bernard was the feature back, but White said the team played him at fullback as a way to get him on the field. White was far from an afterthought, rushing for 960 yards to Bernard’s 1,579 in their junior years while leading Aquinas to a second consecutive 5A state title.
But White finds it funny that he can’t remember the last time he started a game outside of fill-in time when Bernard got hurt.
Montee Ball, who was also taken in the second round -- No. 58 overall -- on Friday night, owned the Badgers’ starting job for most of the last three years. As usual, White thrived as a wingman. He enters his senior year with 32 touchdowns and 2,571 yards on 422 carries.
Ball and White are tight, too. They roomed together for a year at Wisconsin, White said. But his history with Bernard, coupled with Bernard's personal struggles, have him hyped for his selection.
He knows Bernard’s time is now while his is coming. White will share carries with Melvin Gordon but has the inside track to start the opener against UMass.
“It’s a dream come true for him -- for both of us, really,” said White of Bernard, who used to sleep in White’s older brother’s room while he was off to college. “We’re pretty similar. We joke around with each other, about what our strengths are, trying to copy off each other’s game, make fun of each other about who gets tackled from behind most.”
With 4.53 speed and elite punt-return ability, Bernard doesn’t have this problem often. The 5-foot-10 White is also known for elusiveness.
White considers his shared time at running back a blessing -- that means less mileage. NFL teams might like that, he figures. He knows he can play every down if necessary but doesn’t have to. Wisconsin wants to play three good running backs, first-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen said.
Andersen wants to preserve Wisconsin’s storied ground attack while enhancing the passing attack, which is fine by White -- that means more versatility.
“You just have to be an all-around player,” said White, the sixth-ranked running back in the 2014 class by CBSSports.com. “That’s what they are really looking for, someone who can catch the ball out of the backfield and block and be able to get those tough yards.”
White says he never felt slighted by his long-time supporting role. He considers himself a patient guy. He’s happy for his friends.
But make no mistake, he’s thinking about April 2014. That process starts now. If he's Wisconsin's starter this season, he'll proudly call that personal validation.
“At times you find yourself wanting more,” White said. “But whenever you get your opportunity, you have to run with it. That’s what I’m doing.”
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