FOXBORO: You could have called him James White-Out for the way his NFL career began.
The Patriots selected White in the fourth round with the 130th overall pick, making him the 13th running back to come off the board in the 2014 draft following a record-setting career at the University of Wisconsin.
The Badgers have a well-deserved reputation for developing backs who are at the forefront of the collegiate ranks. Those runners, though, have typically failed to gain traction as pros.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound White looked as if he was going to be the latest Badger bust after getting 11 carries and catching nine passes while playing in seven of a possible 21 games as a rookie and early into his sophomore season.
To his credit, White never wavered in his preparation while buried on the depth chart.
“You just stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” the personable Fort Lauderdale native said Thursday as the Patriots’ three-day minicamp came to a close. “Just work hard during practice and when your number is called you have to be ready to answer.”
No. 28 got the call against the New York Jets in Week 6 with Dion Lewis sidelined with an abdominal injury. White played 43 snaps — or 17 more than his career total entering the game — and caught three passes in the 30-23 win.
It was back to the bench for the next two weeks before White again stepped in for Lewis, this time for the rest of the season after the diminutive and dynamic Lewis suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his season.
Doing most of his damage on third down and split out wide, White caught 33 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns — with a 10-115-1 line in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13 — and rushed for two TDs over the final eight games. He added seven receptions in two playoff games.
White, who was solid in blitz pickup when stationed in the backfield, had limited experience lining up wide in college, but made a smooth and quick transition as a sophomore.
“It was just practice,” he said. “Practice repetition is game reality. So I try to go out here and rep it during practice and whatever I’m asked to do, I try to do it to the best of my ability.”
While it’s not the easiest task to work on during OTAs due to the lack of pads and physical contact, White has been focused on improving his running skills, which left much to be desired last season.
White averaged 6.24 yards per carry in 52 career games for Wisconsin. That figure ranked first in school history and fifth all-time in Big Ten annals upon his graduation.
But he only averaged 2.5 yards on 22 carries last season with a long run of 8 yards.
White readily acknowledged he “most definitely” has to improve in that area if he hopes to match up to the undersized likes of Patriot predecessors Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, all of whom were all-around talents who were especially lethal on third down.
With OTAs wrapping up next week, he does what he can for now.
“I mean, it’s hard because there are no pads,” White said. “But right now you work on your run reads, see how the linemen are going to block and know how they’re going to fit up against certain defenses. You just try to learn this offense and know what other people are
doing so it makes your job easier.”
Perhaps it was a sign of support for White, along with returnees LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Lewis, that the Patriots didn’t draft a running back in April. Or maybe they just didn’t feel there was a back worthy of using a pick on.
Either way, the team is pleased with the progress White made from Year 1 to 2 while acknowledging he needs to become more productive as a runner.
“He did exactly what we needed him to do,” longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears said. “He got better and better and better. And he needs to continue that.
“Let’s give him a chance to really make some moves on his own (as a runner). I think James is going to be alright. I really do, and we’ll wait and see on that.”
In the meantime, sufficient progress was made last season for White to shed the hypothetical hyphenated surname.