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ROSE BOWL | USC VS. TEXAS

Back-Seat Driver

LenDale White has sometimes been an afterthought in the Leinart-Bush backfield and has sometimes been unhappy about it, but some believe he's the man who really makes USC's offense go -- and he could be the key against Texas

January 03, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

It takes about five minutes -- not so long, really -- for LenDale White to come clean. After careful answers and platitudes, the other USC tailback walks off the practice field, ducks down a corridor to the locker room and begins to talk.

"Actually," he says, leaning against a concrete wall, "I'm a selfish football player and I want the ball all the time."

Same old story. Same predicament he has faced all season.

His talent is such that he could be a star, the star, on almost any team except the one for which he plays. With the top-ranked Trojans playing second-ranked Texas for the national championship in the Rose Bowl, White has been lauded and cheered and much discussed, yet ultimately overshadowed by a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush.

"Not an easy situation," offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin says. "There have been games when Reggie gets the first six carries and LenDale's got nothing."

In the season opener at Hawaii, Bush not only dominated the action -- at least early on, when it was still a game -- he also scored from a goal-line formation, which had been White's domain.

Afterward, White lingered outside the locker room, apart from celebrating teammates, his mood seeming to waver between puzzlement and a full-on sulk.

"It's hard to be patient when you see everyone else doing good," he recalls. "Matt's having a stellar game or Reggie's having a stellar game, you want to get out there and be a part of it."

At that point, one day into the season, he faced a choice.

*

A mirrored, Darth Vader-like visor across his facemask. A straight-ahead running style, backed by 235 pounds, that borders on corporal punishment. The young man whom teammates call "Pudge" is anything but.

In slightly less than three seasons, White has 3,035 yards rushing and holds the school record with 54 touchdowns.

The Longhorns, preparing for the game on Wednesday, figure he might be the X factor.

"Everybody is talking about Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart," Coach Mack Brown says. "But LenDale White has carried the ball 10 less times than Reggie Bush and has 1,200 yards."

Texas defensive tackle Rod Wright picks up on this theme, musing about White and Bush as a two-headed beast.

"Being a defensive player, when you have a big back that pounds the ball and then a guy like Reggie Bush who's shifty, that's a big change," Wright says. "It's hard to play both of them."

The tailbacks began this way, a tandem, nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning" as freshmen. White announced his presence first.

Midway through the 2003 season, with USC trailing Arizona State and Leinart hobbled, White rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns, sparking a comeback. Leinart got much of the credit for playing injured, but fullback Brandon Hancock says, "LenDale was the difference maker. You could tell this guy was going to be a serious threat."

That season and the next, as USC embarked on what is now a 34-game winning streak, White led the team in rushing yardage and touchdowns. Bush was always flashier, but the bigger tailback proved a steadying force, getting most of the carries, hammering Oklahoma for 118 yards and two scores on a sore ankle in the 2005 Orange Bowl.

But then he missed spring practice because of academic issues while Bush worked harder than ever, adding strength to his repertoire. Just that quickly, the balance shifted.

The coaches made a point of naming Bush the starter in summer camp.

Bush also joined Leinart on the cover of the media guide and in a weekly Internet feature, MattReggieTV.com.

Then came the Hawaii game.

"Things happen," White says. "You don't just cruise through life."

*

The second of Anita White's three children was always emotional, if not downright impulsive.

"He wants to get it done," his mother says. "Let's go. Let's get it done now."

With no father in the picture, Anita sought to teach him patience. With help from an uncle and a Denver Bronco fan of a grandmother, she nudged the boy toward football, even when he shuddered at the prospect of getting hit.

Though reluctant, LenDale showed talent in youth leagues and was blossoming into a high school star in Denver when, late in his sophomore season, a man came to practice with a gun, causing the team to scatter.

Again, Anita helped keep LenDale going.

He transferred to a school 40 minutes away, which meant long commutes, and a funny thing happened. The game took hold of him. By the end of his senior season, he had amassed 7,803 yards, best in Colorado high school history.

The Trojans came calling, and it didn't matter that they were recruiting Bush and another talented back, Chauncey Washington. At least, that's what LenDale told everyone. He chose USC -- over Texas, no less -- because of Coach Pete Carroll's reputation for playing freshmen.

"I wanted to play for the best team," he says. "Naturally, they're going to have the best players."

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