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Nasty Reputation

Trojans like the aggressive rushing style of freshman White

October 08, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

It took awhile, about 10 years by his estimate, for USC tailback LenDale White to fall in love with football.

At 5, he cringed while watching cousins play in a Denver youth league.

"I hated it," he said. "I'd see them get hit and say, 'That's not for me.' "

Still, White's uncle signed him up for a team the next season. He was a three-year veteran by 9.

"I wanted to quit every year, but my mom and uncle wouldn't let me," he said, shaking his head.

Finally, two years and more than 4,000 yards into what would become a storied Colorado high school career, White fell hard for the sport.

"That's when I started loving it," he said.

White, 18, showed his passion and power last Saturday when he rambled for 140 yards in 21 carries in USC's 37-17 victory over Arizona State. It was the most rushing yardage by a true freshman in USC history, and a performance that helped the ninth-ranked Trojans rebound from a triple-overtime loss at California.

White, who had only 17 carries in the first four games, has not officially displaced sophomore Hershel Dennis at No. 1 on the depth chart, but he is expected to carry the load again Saturday when USC plays Stanford in the Trojans' only October home game.

"We're certainly going to find out if LenDale can handle the ball again," Coach Pete Carroll said.

White's size -- 6 feet 2 and 227 pounds -- speed and punishing style remind many longtime USC observers of Ricky Bell, a unanimous All-American for the Trojans in 1975 and 1976.

Carroll said White ran against Arizona State with the same aggressiveness Justin Fargas displayed in the second half of the 2002 season.

"He's got a nasty attitude about him," Carroll said. "That's something we really like."

USC's coaching staff also likes White's size.

"He's the biggest tailback we've had here and he hasn't even addressed his strength yet," said Kennedy Pola, who coaches USC's running backs. "Our weight- and strength-training people say he can be a lot stronger."

Coaches and teammates, however, said White's inner strength has been tested almost since the day he arrived for training camp in August.

While trying to make an impression on the field and adjusting to life away from home, White has been taxed emotionally by the failing health of his maternal grandmother, Sharon White, who is suffering from heart problems, diabetes and gout.

After rushing for a team-best 58 yards and scoring two touchdowns against Hawaii on Sept. 13, White returned to Denver for a few days to see the woman he calls "my second mom" and comfort his family. He has said repeatedly that he is dedicating his season to Sharon White.

"I know if she sees me doing well on the field, that helps her out in some way," he said.

White also is eager to please his mother, Anita, and his uncle, Herman White, who stepped in to fill the void left by an absent father.

"He took me in from Day 1," LenDale said. "Without him, I would not be where I am now."

White was a 14-year-old freshman when he broke onto the Denver sports scene at Denver South High. With his uncle calling the plays as offensive coordinator, White rushed for nearly 200 yards in his first game, and helped a team that had finished with an 0-10 record the year before improve to 8-3.

Near the end of White's sophomore season, the brother of one of Denver South's coaches showed up at practice, wielding a gun. No shots were fired, but White and his teammates scattered.

"It was one of the craziest things I've seen in my life," White said. "We all ran."

White, who gained 4,270 yards in his first two seasons, was one of 17 players who transferred out of Denver South. White and his uncle looked at several schools before settling on Chatfield High, in Littleton, about 40 minutes away.

"I wouldn't have cared if it was an eight-hour trip," Herman White said. "You put your kids in the best situation for the big picture, for learning life skills."

LenDale said he did not mind waking up at 5:45 a.m., or returning home late from Chatfield.

"That's when I started to really love football," White said. "Forty minutes was not going to hold me back from being there at 7 a.m. to work out with the rest of the team."

In 2001, White led Chatfield to a 14-0 record and the state title in Colorado's largest division. He concluded his career last fall with a Colorado-record 7,803 yards and scholarship offers from USC, Texas, Michigan, Oregon and Pittsburgh.

Previously, USC rarely mined Colorado for recruits. Running back Scott Lockwood, offensive lineman Tony Boselli and cornerback Brian Kelly are among the few former Trojans from the Rocky Mountain state.

Under Carroll, however, USC expanded its recruiting base. Receivers coach Lane Kiffin was the point man in pursuit of White, and Pola and Carroll were the closers.

White said he chose USC over Texas because, "It was Tailback U," and because of its improving academic reputation. Like fellow freshmen Reggie Bush and Chauncey Washington, White also saw opportunity for immediate playing time.

"I knew [Dennis] was a young guy just like the rest of us," White said. "I just knew they would need other people to come in and take reps."

White played in USC's first four games but was not presented with a featured role until the rushing game stalled at Cal.

His 25-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against Arizona State started USC on a streak of 27 unanswered points that culminated in White's six-yard scoring run with 5:12 left in the game.

His 140 yards eclipsed the 136 that Charles White rushed for as a true freshman in 1976 against Stanford.

Now, LenDale White is looking forward to his own opportunity against the Cardinal.

"What you did last week was last week," he said. "The coaches want to see if you can do it again. I believe I can, if they call on me."

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