Entering his final collegiate season, Wisconsin running back James White was finally going to get his chance to start in the backfield for the Badgers.
As it has always been for White during his four-year stay in Madison, Wis., there has always been somebody else. For two years, White backed up Montee Ball, who is the FBS record-holder in career touchdowns and was a back-to-back consensus All-American.
Before that, White rushed for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman. Heck, he led the team in rushing and was tops in yards per carry en route to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. And yet, it was Ball who ran away with the starting job during White's sophomore and junior seasons.
So it should come as no surprise that even though White was named the starter entering the 2013 season, there was someone else waiting to steal his thunder.
This time, it was Melvin Gordon.
The sophomore tailback generated all sorts of hype following his 200-yard outburst in Wisconsin's rout of Nebraska in last year's B1G Championship Game. In fact, it was Gordon who received more carries than White in the Badgers' Rose Bowl loss to Stanford.
White has maintained starter status for most of the season, but it's Gordon who leads the team in rushing at 1,306 yards through 10 games. Before a recent bump in the road, Gordon was the nation's leading rusher as his name began to earn Heisman Trophy consideration.
Shoot—if White can't even lead his own team in rushing, then how can he be the Badgers' MVP?
With White, it goes far beyond what he does after Joel Stave jams the ball into his gut.
While his 1,156 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns are nothing to scoff at, White is also one of the Badgers' leading receivers. He is second on the team in receptions (31) and third in receiving yards (257). While that has a lot to do with the lack of threats for Wisconsin at wide receiver, his willingness to split out wide opens up more opportunities for Gordon to carry the football.
|James White's rushing statistics by season at Wisconsin|
|Year||Rushing yards||Yards per carry||Touchdowns|
|2013 (On pace for)||1,156 (1,502.8)||6.8||12 (15.6)|
That unselfish trait can't go unnoticed, and neither can the fact that White has 30 more receptions than Gordon this season. That pass catching ability is the reason White has amounted 1,413 yards from scrimmage, good for No. 2 in the Big Ten and over 100 more yards than Gordon.
There's also a reason why it's typically White lined up in the backfield when Stave drops back to pass. Over his four years at Wisconsin, White has dramatically improved in pass protection, picking up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs, and never blowing an assignment.
Stave has only been dropped for a sack 12 times this season, and while that has a lot to do with the Badgers' excellent offensive line, White also deserves plenty of credit.
Being a running back goes far beyond carrying the rock and breaking big plays. That's no knock on Gordon, who will continue to develop his overall game as he grows more experienced. Gordon has made a killing on the Badgers' patented jet sweep and is more of a playmaker than White, but it's White's overall ability that makes him so valuable.
Every MVP has an MVP moment. For White, it came in the fourth quarter against Iowa back on Nov. 2.
Wisconsin has been able to win going away with relative ease this season, but such wasn't the case through the first three quarters in Iowa City. It was against the Hawkeyes when White took matter into his own hands.
With the Badgers leading 21-9 and just under five minutes to play, White sealed the game with a 59-yard run down the right sideline. The drive before that, White found paydirt from 11 yards out to put Wisconsin up by two scores.
A game in which Gordon simply couldn't get it going, White stepped up, rushing for 132 yards and two scores. In his last three games, White is averaging 161.3 rushing yards per contest, stepping up when it's mattered most to keep Wisconsin's BCS bowl hopes alive.
Talk about redemption. It was against Iowa during his freshman season—in that same stadium—when White went down with an injury, giving way to Montee Ball, who never looked back.
Of course, this award doesn't solely boil down to who is Wisconsin's best running back. Linebacker Chris Borland is having yet another outstanding season, and Jared Abbrederis is one of the best receivers the Big Ten has to offer.
To no fault of their own, both Borland and Abbrederis have missed time due to injury this season. Their presence is vital in their own right, but their versatility, statistics and team-first mentality just doesn't quite stack up to that of James White.
Maybe White isn't a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award for the top running back in the nation, or the Maxwell Award for the country's most outstanding player like Gordon, or a Butkus Award semifinalist for the nation's top linebacker like Borland.
But he's the finalist for Wisconsin's Most Valuable Player Award.