Stew Milne//USA Today Sports

The conversation that made James White’s NFL career

Ryan Hannable
November 15, 2018 - 11:36 pm
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FOXBORO -- The Patriots selected James White in the fourth round of the 2014 draft out of Wisconsin. 

White wasn’t like some of the recent running backs selected in the middle rounds like Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara where they made immediate impacts. The running back was only active for three games his rookie season and finished with just 38 yards rushing and 23 yards receiving.

Fortunately, White was able to learn from one of the better third-down backs in the league at the time in Shane Vereen.

Following the year, in which the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, White had a man-to-man conversation with running backs coach Ivan Fears, who told him what he needed to do in order to play.

"I told him what to do. I didn't color it. He attacked the things I told him to do every day and kept improving," Fears said recently.

“He just told me what I needed to do pretty much in order to play,” White added. “I don’t want to say the exact stuff, but he said in order to play you have to do such and such and I made sure I did all those things.”

White took the words to heart, spending that entire offseason working on what Fears said and it showed up the following summer when the team returned for training camp.

"He came into that camp like a different guy," Fears said. "His first year he wanted to try to figure out who he was and what his role was going to be in the offense. You got to see yourself playing and what you want to be. You got to attack it. He had to embrace all of it - the running, the pass catching and blitz pick up. What we are asking them to do is much greater here than in college."

At Wisconsin, White finished his four-year career with 643 carries for 4,015 yards and 45 touchdowns, while adding 73 receptions for 670 yards and three touchdowns. Clearly, he was used more in the running game than in the passing game like he's been with the Patriots.

The next year, 2015, the Patriots let Vereen walk via free agency, so it was clear they saw potential in White as a rookie. Dion Lewis started that year with an outstanding seven-game stretch until he tore his ACL against the Redskins. Lewis ran for 388 yards and contributed 234 receiving yards to take away any additional reps from White, but the injury changed things.

“Finally, I got my shot,” White said.

White never looked back as after 410 receiving yards and four touchdowns, to go along with 56 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 2015, he was the new third-down back and a player Tom Brady was beginning to trust. 

The Wisconsin product never looked back as in 2016 he had another solid season, but will always be remembered for his outstanding performance in Super Bowl LII. White had 14 catches on 16 targets for 110 yards and a touchdown to go along with six carries for 29 yards and two touchdowns, one of them being the game-winner in overtime.

Now, White is one of the best third-down backs in the entire league.

Through 10 games he has 230 yards rushing and four touchdowns to go along with 66 receptions for 562 yards and six touchdowns. He’s on pace for 106 catches, which would be the most ever in a single season by a running back. Matt Forte currently hold the record at 102.

White knows what a different player he is now compared to four years ago.

“I think just everything,” he said. “Each year it’s not just one thing, I try and work on my whole game whether it is running the ball, run reads, learning the offense as a whole, learning what Tom [Brady] is looking at before the snap so I get a better understanding, better route running, understanding defenses a little bit better. There’s always stuff you can learn and the more you know the better.”

Even though the specifics of his conversation with Fears after the 2014 season aren’t known, it clearly paid off.

Related: Dion Lewis says postgame comments towards Patriots weren't personal

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