July 26, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
CHICAGO -- The former high school teammates were seated a few tables apart during the one-on-one interviews here Thursday at the Big Ten Media Days. Although they went their separate ways after playing together on heavyweight teams at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) that won back-to-back Class 5A state titles and the mythical 2008 national championship, the bond has remained strong between Wisconsin tailback James White and Purdue tight end Gabe Holmes.
“I couldn’t wait to see him (White) when I got here,’’ said Holmes, a 6-foot-5, 243-pound senior from Miramar, Fla. “James is a great guy and friend to this day.’’
Holmes also renewed acquaintances with White’s parents, Tyrone and Lisa, in the lobby of the Hilton Chicago, the site of this week’s preseason meetings. Situated on South Michigan Avenue, across from historic Grant Park, the hotel was built in 1927, just 10 years after the construction of Camp Randall Stadium. The Kickoff Luncheon was in the Hilton’s ornate Grand Ballroom, a shooting location for the start of a chase scene in the 1993 movie “The Fugitive’’ starring Harrison Ford.
On Thursday, everyone was talking about chasing Ohio State in the Leaders Division.
“I told James today that I’m looking forward to seeing him at Camp Randall,’’ said Holmes, alluding to the Sept. 21 Big Ten opener between the Boilermakers and the Badgers. Not only will the game feature first-year head coaches in Darrell Hazell and Gary Andersen, but it will be a scene-setter, an opening act, since everybody else will open conference play a week later. “I’m excited to play against James’’ Holmes said, anticipating the matchup in Madison, “and Dez and Connor.’’
Wisconsin safety Dez Southward and linebacker Conor O’Neill are also products of St. Thomas Aquinas, a private Catholic school that has spawned many elite athletes, everyone from Chris Evert to Michael Irvin. Holmes was a three-year letterwinner in basketball, which was Southward’s sport of choice; the only thing he knew growing up in south Florida. Southward was a three-year captain and a two-time MVP in hoops at Aquinas. In fact, he didn’t go out for football until his senior year.
“Dez is a freak athlete,’’ said Holmes. “I’ve known him since I was 10; I played AAU basketball with him. He could jump and run. He was always undersized -- he played a 4/5 position -- but he was like a Charles Barkley down there (the low block). His athleticism and will always set him apart.’’
|The Best of Who's Back
|Despite having never started a game at tailback -- his two career starts came as a slot receiver in 2012 -- James White ranks No. 2 nationally in career rushing yards among returning running backs:
1. Silas Redd (USC): 2,583
2. James White (Wisconsin): 2,571
3. Raymond Maples (Army): 2,489
4. James Sims (Kansas): 2,482
5. Charles Sims (Houston): 2,365
Holmes recalled how White shared the carries, if not the spotlight, in the Aquinas backfield with Giovanni Bernard, who went on to have a stellar career at North Carolina. In last April’s NFL draft, Bernard was a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. In 2008, on a 15-0 team, Bernard rushed for 1,579 yards and White for 960. Both had 18 touchdowns. Both were very good friends. During their senior year, Bernard moved in with the Whites because his father lived in Boynton Beach, a 30-mile drive from Fort Lauderdale and Aquinas. Bernard’s mom had died of cancer 10 years earlier.
“Being in the backfield with Giovanni, James did whatever he could do to help the team, the same as he did last year with Montee Ball, he never complained,’’ said Holmes. “James is a humble guy. He doesn’t talk a whole lot; he doesn’t brag a whole lot. But he’s going to do whatever is best for the team. He’s not the biggest of guys, but he has good speed, deceptive speed, and he has a big heart.’’
Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen, another Floridian (Daytona Beach), labeled White as a “one-cut guy who’s going to hit the hole and make you miss.’’ He compared him favorably to Boilermakers teammate Akeem Hunt, who had an 81-yard touchdown run against the Badgers in 2012. What Allen had to say about the 5-9, 186-pound Hunt -- “He has been a backup, just like a relief pitcher, a third-down running back, but he’s going to be an every-down running back this year’’ -- applied in some ways to White.
In general, Allen didn’t have to be reminded of Wisconsin’s one-two punch with Ball and White. Last October, Ball rushed for 247 yards -- in becoming the Big Ten’s all-time leader in touchdowns with 72 -- while White ran for 124 yards in a 38-14 rout of the Boilermakers. “You have to be ready to bang all night with them because you know they’re going to run the ball,’’ Allen said. “You also have to be disciplined because they will hit you with a play-action pass when you’re not thinking about it.’’
Indiana defensive back Greg Heban could relate to Allen’s pain. The Badgers rushed for a school-record 564 yards -- Ball had 198, White had 161 and Melvin Gordon had 96 -- in a 62-14 trouncing of the Hoosiers. “They’re a lot more run-focused than anyone else, so you have to have a different mentality against them,’’ Heban said. “They’re out there competing like it’s the last game they’ll ever play. They have a lot of talent which helps when you mix that together with hard work. Montee Ball was just so big and hard to tackle. He (White) is not as big, but he may be faster. He’s definitely a great running back.’’
Allen knew of White before he got to the Big Ten. Word spread fast in Florida. But he didn’t know much about Gordon, the Kenosha, Wis., native, until he saw him up-close and personal last year in West Lafayette. Allen believes that Gordon is an untapped talent. “I think he’s really good,’’ he said. “I think he can be the next Montee Ball. He’s a big guy and a very patient runner. If he stays behind that big O-line, he can do great things. No matter who’s in there, too, they’ll always have a solid offensive line.’’
During Thursday’s interview session, White talked about offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and his game plan. “Coach Ludwig is a very smart guy,’’ he said. “He’s going to try and get his best players the ball in space and that’s all you can ask for if you’re a skill player on offense. I try to be as versatile as possible. I can catch the ball out of the backfield, block, run between the tackles and run outside.’’
White had his bases covered, which is not unexpected since he was a pretty good baseball player at Aquinas. A centerfielder, he was always a threat to steal. Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Jean Segura bears a striking physical resemblance, in uniform, at least, to White. Segura is 5-10, 200. White is listed at 5-10, 197. That’s where the comparisons end.
At that, White is not much into comparing himself to others, especially now that he finally has a chance to escape the shadows of Bernard and Ball. To everyone who asked in Chicago, and he was repeatedly questioned on having never started a game at tailback for the Badgers, his only two starts were as a slot receiver last season, White said, “It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting on my whole career, so I’m going to show the world what I have.’’