FOXBORO, Mass. — If Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon goes off in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday, opponent and New England Patriots running back James White deserves some of the credit or blame, depending on where your rooting interests lie.
White groomed Gordon in the long line of running backs the University of Wisconsin produced over the years. After John Clay and Montee Ball passed knowledge down to White, he paid it forward with Gordon and Corey Clement.
Gordon is grateful for White taking him under his wing.
“He was a great mentor for me, just showed me the ropes, really how to work, how to go about handling my business at the collegiate level and take that to the next level,” Gordon said. “If I ever need anything, I know he’s always going to be there to hold me down.”
White stood out in that leadership role to his coaches at Wisconsin.
“When we brought those young players in from wherever they came from, James was such a tremendous mentor to those kids, helping them adjust to college, adjust to Madison, helping some of them adjust to the weather that came from Florida, wherever they came from,” former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen told NESN.com. “He was a tremendous, tremendous mentor for those young players when they walked into the program at Wisconsin. That’s James White. That’s who he is. It’s really, most of the time he seems more worried about other people than he is about himself, and that’s a pretty cool thing to say about somebody.”
So, what were some of the specifics that White passed on to Gordon?
“Just learning the offense as a whole, just working hard,” White said. “At Wisconsin, the running back’s going to be a very viable option in the offense, so just stay with it, knowing who the offensive line is blocking and things like that. Just learning the offense as a whole so you get a better grasp of what you’re doing.”
White has continued to focus on learning the entire offense with the Patriots so much so that when wide receiver Phillip Dorsett came to the team in 2017, he went to his former St. Aquinas High School teammate for guidance.
“He plays running back, but he knows all the positions on offense like the back of his hand,” Dorsett said. “He was definitely a guy that I leaned on, because he was a guy that I knew. I definitely came to him asking him anything if I needed anything, because I knew he’d be there to help me.
“Sometimes we’ll have checks or we’d get a signal that I didn’t know when I was really early and we didn’t go over it. I’d just ask him, and he’d help me out.”
White won the Ron Hobson Good Guy Award, which is voted on by Patriots reporters for a player who handles his media responsibilities with class and professionalism. One of the reasons White took home that award is because he always greets the duties with a smile and a positive attitude. He said Wednesday he tries to be that same “personable person” to his current younger teammates.
“Just let them know about my experience when I was a younger guy learning the offense, trying to figure out a routine during the week,” White said. “Whatever it is, whatever they’re having trouble with, I just want to be a guy they’re available to talk to.”
And he’s been that same player since college.
“He was a great teammate to the veteran players, to the younger players,” former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig told NESN.com. “I would assume that he’s the same guy today that he was four or five years ago when I had the fortune to work with him.”
White and Gordon still share a special bond from the two years they spent together with the Badgers. Each described the relationship as big-brother, little-brother. The two worked out together this offseason, and Gordon even stayed at White’s house.
The two running backs had a record-breaking season together in 2013 under Andersen and Ludwig’s tutelage.
White carried the ball 221 times for 1,444 yards with 13 touchdowns, while Gordon rushed 206 times for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns. They combined to set the FBS record for rushing yards by a pair of teammates with 3,053 yards. They were also the first teammates in FBS history who each registered over 1,400 rushing yards.
They also set Wisconsin ablaze with their touchdowns dance, the U Dub Step.
“There were plenty of reps to go around, but that can be hard at a tailback spot,” Ludwig said. “They want to play every snap. But we featured both of them a lot. They got a lot of touches and made the absolute most of every one of them.”
White has never minded sharing the backfield.
“There was never any conflict, never any issues with that at all,” Andersen said. “Any good back, in this case, any great back, would be very excited to have a complementary back with him, and James always seemed that way.”
It’s almost as if White’s time in high school playing with Gio Bernard and college with Clay, Ball, Gordon and Clement prepared him for life as a Patriot, where he’s carved out a very important role as a third-down back.
“I’m perfectly fine with sharing a backfield,” White said. “It keeps guys fresh, it keeps the defense off balance. They’ve kind of got to know who’s coming into the game. I think it’s a big help.”
White had his most productive and balanced season in 2018 sharing the backfield with Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and Cordarrelle Patterson. He had his first 1,000-total yard season, picking up 751 through the air and 425 on the ground.
Gordon is coming off perhaps his best season — though it was injury-ravaged — when he averaged 5.1-yards per carry with 10 touchdowns in 12 games while sharing the role with Austin Ekeler.
Gordon didn’t practice Wednesday because of two sore knees. He’s expected to play Sunday, though potentially slippery conditions could be a hazard for the talented running back.
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Thumbnail photo via Neil Ament/Wisconsin Athletic Communications