The question has stuck to University of Wisconsin senior running back James White for as long as he has played football.
Because he is undersized for a tailback, currently listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, the assumption has always been that he can’t run up the middle.
“I get that all the time,” White said after practice on Tuesday. “I think it’s purely a size thing. I may not be as big as most guys, but I feel like I’m physically capable of doing anything out there on the field.”
The skeptics should be referred to the video of the Badgers’ 45-0 season-opening victory over UMass on Saturday. White had 11 carries for 143 yards and a touchdown. Nine of the carries for 117 yards — including a 51-yard touchdown run — came on running plays from tackle to tackle.
Sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon has heard similar things, but for different reasons.
Gordon, 6-1, 207, used to have an upright running style, though he’s worked hard to lower his pad level, something UW coach Gary Andersen mentioned as improved after the game.
A bit of a long-strider, Gordon was effective last season mostly as a slot back, running jet sweeps and other plays to the outside. He came into this season feeling like he had to prove all over again he could run inside, when needed, from the tailback position.
Gordon had 13 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown, including nine carries for 119 yards that were runs from tackle to tackle. That included a 70-yard touchdown run behind right tackle.
“Hopefully, we showed them (Saturday) we can (run inside),” Gordon said of the critics. “We’ll continue to do that, if they have any doubts.
“This is what we practiced, against a great (UW) defense, the entire fall. I believe we can run between the tackles. We can do it all.”
Clearly, there’s more to running inside than being a bruising back who can push the pile. White proves that on a regular basis.
On runs of 47 and 51 yards Saturday, White made subtle cuts and found the holes.
“He’s got great field awareness, great vision, good acceleration,” running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. “He’s just a good player that can easily be overlooked because he’s not the sexiest player.
“He’s not the long-strider Melvin is, or he may not have the quick feet or the toughness of (freshman) Corey (Clement), but he’s a consistent player.”
White’s 51-yard touchdown came between right guard and right tackle. Senior left guard Ryan Groy pulled and took out two players, pushing a linebacker into a defensive back.
The beauty of that run was the patience White showed, waiting for the hole to open.
“That’s one of the keys for me at running back, I try to be patient,” he said. “I know those holes will open up, just give those offensive linemen time, just trusting that hole’s going to be there. Most of the time it’s there.”
Gordon’s improvement lowering his pad level has been the result of constant drills in practice with Hammock. Those drills include a contraption, made of metal bars and ropes, that is about four feet off the ground and forces the back to stay low as he runs under it.
“One thing about me, I try to incorporate areas we’re deficient, to make sure we can minimize our deficiencies,” Hammock said. “When I see a deficiency and (the players) recognize it, we try to address it and move forward. That’s the only way you can become as good as you can possibly become, is to minimize your deficiencies and continue your strengths.”
The results were evident in the game as Hammock said Gordon averaged more than 4 yards per run after contact.
While Gordon has improved running inside, he knows he can get better, especially watching White’s field awareness.
“He knows where guys are going to be, pre-snap awareness, something I need to get better at,” Gordon said. “But he’s a vet. He’s been in these situations before and he knows the defense.
“He knows where guys are and he knows where guys will be before they even get there.”
White is so good at finding the holes inside, it usually doesn’t take a dramatic move to find room to run.
“Sometimes it only takes a little bit, just a head nod, a little step in the hole, to get that safety or that corner to fly over there,” Gordon said. “He’s good at that. He did it three or four times (on Saturday). That’s the field awareness. He’s got it.”
Forget all of those inside-outside running back tandems. Both White and Gordon expect to be proficient at both. White appears to have reached that point and Gordon is not far behind.
Hammock said he was never concerned about either back being able to run inside since they do it all of the time in practice. The only thing they lacked before now was the chance to do it consistently in games the past two seasons, when current Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball was still around.
“This is what you do, this is what you sign up for,” Hammock said of running inside. “Just because you haven’t had as many opportunities doesn’t mean you’re not ready for that moment. We’re going to continue to work for those moments. As the games get bigger, hopefully, we can continue to rise.”