Foxboro Mass --
2014 was a bittersweet year for James White. The Pats drafted him in the fourth round, the Pats won the Super Bowl, but White was only active for three games. White was inactive when the Pats defeated Seattle in the Super Bowl in February 2015. Many questioned why the Pats had drafted White - who had been a runner in college. The Pats offense asks the Pats running backs to engage in blitz pick up and pass catching. White, who played behind Shane Vereen his rookie year, struggled to understand the new Pats offense. Many asked whether the Pats needed White and was he even worth a fourth round pick. It was reasonable to think that way in 2014, but it is a thought that seems farfetched in 2018. White, 26, has 55 catches - second in the league among running backs to Giants RB Saquon Barkley.
At the end of the 2014 season, White realized that he needed guidance if he wanted to be a successful running back in the NFL. He approached running backs coach Ivan Fears and asked how he could improve in order to receive playing time. Fears, a no non-sense running backs coach who has been a Pats assistant for 20 years, gave White some honest feedback.
"I told him what to do. I didn't color it. He attacked the things I told him to do every day and kept improving," Fears said.
White worked harder than ever before between the 2014 and 2015 season. When training camp started in 2015, Fears was shocked at what he saw. White finally understood he had to be a complete player to survive in New England.
"He came into that camp like a different guy," Fears said. "His first year he wanted to try to figure out who he was and what his role was going to be in the offense. You got to see yourself playing and what you want to be. You got to attack it. He had to embrace all of it - the running, the pass catching and blitz pick up. What we are asking them to do is much greater here than in college."
White's willingness to accept criticism and learn from it was something he learned at a young age from a Dad who worked in law enforcement and a Mom who was a probation specialist. The message was simple - an instruction is given and it must be followed. White worries little about the outside noise or any potential fame that might come with being an NFL player. When Jon Bon Jovi attended Pats training camp - White didn't recognize Bon Jovi and frankly was not interested. White simply cares about what his assignment is on a particular play and executing it. Devin McCourty joked last week that White is the type of player who can do no wrong and he has become a favorite of the coaches because he thinks like a coach - asking incisive questions in meetings regarding how a defense might respond to a particular play and what challenges might arise from the play call.
"He's always been a very hard worker, a very diligent guy, knows his assignments very, very well," said Bill Belichick. "Asks questions like a coach would ask them. Has an ability to think really far ahead of what problems could occur on certain fronts or looks or what have you. He does a great job of that. Always has, but as he's gained more experience he just knows more and is able to continue to push ahead, like Tom [Brady] has at his position or Devin [McCourty] has at his position or Patrick [Chung] at his position."
McCourty said that White could be a coach given his intelligence, but joked that he just needs to be a little meaner and talk a little more. White, who grew up in South Florida where he attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, won two state championships in high school. White played with several future NFL stars like Giovanni Bernard. White, though, showed he could handle new circumstances when he chose Wisconsin over a local Florida University because he liked power football over the spread formation that more Southern schools run. Wisconsin beat Ohio State during White's freshman year and he remembers what it was like to have a big win.
"I think his parents did a great job with James White," Fears said. "Whatever they did - they did right. He (White) does what's right - he's a freakin good kid. They got the message across the right away - you gotta love the kid. When you get to talk to him - get to know him you gotta love him. He is what's good about this world and I am very proud to know that rascal (Fears said with a laugh)."
His teammates particularly the offensive linemen have come to love White as well. Asked for a favorite James White story, C David Andrews had a simple response.
"Favorite James White story? Every time he gets the football, I like it a lot. He does a good job for us," Andrews said. "I think we all have our funny sides but when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. James has been a great teammate. I really enjoy getting to play with him."
"Since I got here he’s just kind of Mr. Consistent guy and you kind of know even when he’s back there maybe on something, he’s going to make us right on a blitz pick-up. There’s a lot of trust that goes between us. He does a great job for us."
Spend enough time around White and there is a humorous side too. He is not a robot. White joked that when Bon Jovi made his appearance at Pats training camp White didn't grow up listening to Bon Jovi's famous song Living on a Prayer. White might not want to initiate a joke, but he can join in. When a reporter had on a Michigan lanyard in the locker room, White said he doesn't worry about Michigan because Wisconsin beat Michigan when he was a freshman at Wisconsin. White also will greet reporters with a smile, say what's up ('it's good to see you") and then when asked about whether he likes pass catching or running better has a stock answer which he has given more than hundred times - whatever the coaches call I do. In other words, I might be nice but I won't allow the media to get me in trouble with the coaches.
White often leaves the locker room with a smile, back pack on and his head held high. If nothing else happens the rest of his career, White knows he has proved the doubters wrong. White had the winning touchdown run in the Pats comeback Super Bowl win over Atlanta two years ago. The play was emblematic of White's career -- when Brady pitched him the ball it seemed impossible that he would score. White, though, kept fighting shedding one Atlanta tackler after another and the ball eventually crossed the goal line. White finished the game with 14 catches for 110 yards. He also had six rushes for 29 yards and finished the game with three touchdowns (two rushing and one receiving). White easily could have been Super Bowl MVP.
White has been a great player late in games this season as well. Against Chicago when the Pats needed to run out the clock, the Pats gave it to White eight straight times. He picked up two first downs and forced the Bears to use all three timeouts. Monday Night against Buffalo, the Pats led 12-6 on third and seven in the fourth quarter. Brady looked around at his receivers and saw they were covered. There was one option - check the ball down to White. White caught about a four yard pass, eluded the linebacker and picked up the first down. A few plays later, the Pats scored a touchdown to make the score 18-6. Fears had a simple response when he saw the play.
"That's my boy. You depend on him to do that. You got to be able to say if I get him the ball he will make a play. James has been awfully good at that lately so we have come to depend on him. If I was Tom (Brady) and I was in trouble and I had the chance to find James I know that 1) he is going to make the catch and 2) if there is anyway to make a play on it he will do it," Fears said.
Not bad for a player who was only active three games his rookie year.