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Oct. 14, 2010
By Bill Hass
Finally, after a career at North Carolina that began at tailback, shifted first to cornerback and then to wide receiver and included time on special teams, White is back where he began and where he belongs.
“Running back was where I felt the most natural,” said the fifth-year senior from Asheville, N.C.
If there’s any doubt about his value, you need only look at last week’s 21-16 win over Clemson, White accounted for 179 of the Tar Heels’ 255 yards and had a hand in all three touchdowns. He ran for a 4-yard TD, caught a pass for a 51-yard gain that set up the second score, then added the last TD on a bruising 26-yard run with 6:53 remaining.
Oh yes, he also kept UNC’s final, clock-consuming, game-clinching drive alive by catching a 12-yard pass on third-and-9. Altogether, White ran 22 times for 89 yards and caught six passes for 90 more.
“It was still not a perfect game but it was the best game I’ve had so far,” White said. “On the pass play, I got a little fake out of the backfield. We wanted to see if we could isolate on the linebacker and see if we could get a deep ball on them and we did.”
The fourth-quarter score, he said, was a result of the linemen and receivers giving him good downfield blocks.
“I just tried to run as hard as I could and make it to the end zone,” he said.
That run left an impression on Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
“He’s a powerful back,” Swinney said. “He runs very well behind his pads, he’s quicker than you would think and he runs determined. You’ve got to wrap him up to get him tackled. On the 26-yard touchdown, we had a guy come in and hit him hard but he didn’t wrap up and Johnny bounced off and kept his feet.
“He’s a good back. I said going into the game that he’s as good as anybody we played and I still feel the same.”
The win was the third straight for UNC after an 0-2 start. This Saturday it looks to turn the tables on Virginia in Charlottesville, where the Tar Heels haven’s won since 1981. But Cavaliers coach Mike London isn’t worried about preserving the streak. Among his concerns is finding a way to stop White.
“He’s a very good player, a very accomplished player, very athletic as you can see,” London said. “They’ve captured his skills and put him in a running back position where all those other positions he’s played have benefited him.
“He’s a threat to run the ball, he’s a threat coming out of the backfield to catch the ball. So there’s a lot of challenges he presents and you’re going to have to have team pursuit, you’ll have to team tackle and things like that. I’m very impressed with his skills and the level of energy and passion he plays with.”
London said White not only is a threat running pass routes, but also as the check-down receiver because he can make tacklers miss after the catch.
“I’ve got some speed and I also have a little power in there,” White said of his running style. “In training camp the coaches stressed the pad level and moving your legs and I think that’s been a big help in breaking tackles.”
That speed was one of the first things UNC head coach Butch Davis and his staff noticed in their first year of 2007. White, who had taken a redshirt year in 2006, was impressive enough to earn eight starts at tailback, where he led the team with 399 yards rushing and caught 15 passes for 159 yards.
But his versatility, while a blessing, also turned into something of a curse. When spring practice began in his sophomore season, Davis asked White about moving to cornerback.
“Coach Davis said they needed someone over there at corner and he thought I might be able to do it and was I willing to do it,” White recalled. “I told him I was willing to do whatever would help the team.”
There were some other good runners on hand and Davis didn’t want to stockpile good athletes at one spot at the expense of a weaker position.
“At the time,” Davis said, “we were looking for some speed in the secondary. We were looking for corners and we thought that maybe that might be his niche, just because of the speed he exhibited offensively, He’s a very physical, strong kid (and we thought) he would be a very good tackler at the corner position.”
It turned out to be a difficult transition.
“I played linebacker in high school, but that wasn’t cornerback,” White said. “Playing corner here is pretty tough against the elite level of competition in the ACC.”
White never got on the field as a cornerback but found other ways to contribute, playing on special teams and becoming the team’s top kick return man, averaging 25.3 yards. After seven games, he was moved back to tailback as a backup when injuries hit some other runners.
In the spring of his junior year he was asked to move again, this time to wide receiver, where a trio of good players had departed. White was just glad it wasn’t cornerback.
“I think I fit better on the offensive side of the ball and they wanted to get the ball in my hands,” he said. “I played a little bit there.”
The thought process, Davis said, was that since White had played offense in high school, why not give him a shot at receiver and see what he could do.
After a few games, though, when running back Shaun Draughn hurt his shoulder, White moved back to tailback. He scored his first career touchdown on a 40-yard run against NC State and continued his fine work on special teams, where he was a co-captain.
Finally, in the spring of this year, White returned full-time to his natural position of running back.
“I had a good training camp and I think the coaches had the confidence in me and I had confidence in myself there,” he said.
The Tar Heels still had other good runners, but Davis was convinced where White should be.
“In retrospect … we probably should have left him at running back the entire time.” Davis said. “It was kind of odd man out. Fortunately we were able to wake up and put him back. He has played extraordinarily well, he’s been a huge inspiration and he’s having a very good season.”
Amid the suspensions, dismissals and NCAA investigations surrounding UNC’s program this fall, concentrating on practice and playing on Saturdays has been everyone’s focus.
“The coaches have been stressing to worry about what you can take care of,” White said, “and don’t stress about other things and let the other things take care of themselves. I think everybody on the team has taken that to heart and has been trying to go by that. That’s what it’s about, playing football. It’s what we came here for.”
White’s play has been a consistently bright spot. He is the fifth leading rusher in the ACC with 407 yards, scoring four TDs and averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He has also added 200 yards on 15 receptions.
As for the remainder of the season, White said the ACC Championship remains the team’s primary goal. He believes it can be reached with continued improvement each week. As for himself, White’s attitude hasn’t changed since he was originally asked to move to another position.
“Whatever it takes to help the team win,” he said, “whether it’s catching or running, just being there when I’m called upon and hopefully having a great season.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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