The Trojans' Other Horse

May 01, 2006
May 01, 2006

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May 1, 2006

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The Trojans' Other Horse

The player called Thunder to Reggie Bush's Lightning looked to be a first-round lock, but a tepid performance at USC's pro day has scouts puzzling over his potential

BEFORE LENDALEWHITE tells you about himself--and why he believes he'd be an excellentfirst-round pick for any team inclined to draft a 6'1", 240-pound runningback--the former USC standout wants to make it very clear who he isn't. TerrellOwens, for starters. "I'm not TO," White insists. "I'm not a badseed. On Saturdays, if my college teammates had to put a million dollars onsomebody coming through, I have to say they'd have taken their chances onme."

This is an article from the May 1, 2006 issue

Nor, White says,are recent comparisons with Ohio State star turned NFL washout Maurice Clarettvalid. After missing the 2003 and '04 college seasons, Clarett turned upoverweight at last year's NFL combine and performed poorly. Drafted at the endof the third round by the Broncos, he hurt his groin in training camp and wascut after failing to play in any of the team's first three preseason games.

"That's why Ididn't run at pro day," White, 21, says of sitting out most of USC'sstar-studded workout session for NFL talent evaluators on April 2 with what waslater revealed to be a partially torn hamstring. "I saw what MauriceClarett went through in Denver last year. Maybe if he had been healthy, hecould have been a good pro football player, but he never got a chance to showit. I'd rather take the loss now than end up doing something that hurts me downthe road."

Just how muchWhite, who isn't expected to resume training until mid-May, lost by not workingout on pro day will be revealed on Saturday, when the draft opens at Radio CityMusic Hall. In a reality show otherwise known as How Low Can You Go?, White mayend up reprising the gut-wrenching role played last year by Cal quarterbackAaron Rodgers, who had been touted as a possible No. 1 pick but fell to thePackers at No. 24. Once projected to go in the top 10 after rushing for 3,159yards and a school-record 52 touchdowns in three seasons at USC, White couldslip all the way out of the first round.

"He'sobviously a good player, but you get concerned about a guy who doesn't work outin the spring," says Texans general manager Charley Casserly, whose team isexpected to select White's USC running mate, Reggie Bush, with the No. 1 pick."He's had weight fluctuations that he's admitted to, and if a guy isn't ingood shape in the spring, that's a red flag. This isn't college football; thisleague requires a higher level of commitment. Plus, for all the talk aboutReggie Bush not having to carry the load in college [he averaged 15.4 rushingattempts per game as a junior in 2005], White was also a 15-carry-a-game guy.The bottom line is, there are some questions about him, and you'd like to seesome better answers than what we've seen in the spring."

Casserly madethose comments a few days before an MRI had confirmed White's hamstring injury,which occurred while he was using a weight machine at the February combine, butthe skepticism surrounding White isn't based solely on missed drills. Asmiserable as his pro day showing was--he participated only in the bench press,completing 15 reps at 225 pounds (one more than Trojans punter Tom Malone, andnine fewer than Bush), and weighed in at 244, six pounds heavier than he was atthe combine--the way he came off after the event didn't help his reputationvery much either. Following his unspectacular performance, White zoomed off ina tricked-out Range Rover. One AFC scout, watching the scene, speculated thatthe player "might have cost himself millions of dollars today."

White has heardall that--and worse--from multiple sources, not all of whom are well-placed."It's like all of a sudden my life has become US Weekly," he said inmid-April, while nibbling on a fruit salad at a downtown L.A. restaurant."I get phone calls every day telling me I'm going in the third round, thatI've ruined my life, that my mother didn't raise me right. Even the girls Imeet know all about what's being said."

The feedbackhasn't been all bad. White says he received positive vibes from some of the NFLcoaches he has met since the college season ended, including the Panthers' JohnFox, with whom he had dinner (along with several other team officials) thenight before pro day. Even after he decided not to work out at pro day, Whitesays Panthers officials remained supportive.

"Coaches andscouts were coming up to me and saying, 'If you're really hurt, why risk it?'says White. 'We'd rather have you ready for the first minicamp.' The stuffyou're hearing isn't coming from coach [Bill] Parcells's mouth or coach Fox'smouth. And besides, sometimes people put negative stuff out there just to makekids fall to their [team's] spot."

The Vikings (17thpick), Parcells's Cowboys (18th), Carolina (27th), the Jaguars (28th) and theSteelers (32nd) are among the teams believed to be considering White as afirst-round selection, reasoning that a bruising back who played on a team thatwent 37--2 and won two national championships in his three seasons is equippedto succeed on the next level. But opinions on White's rushing skills even whenhe's on top of his game vary among talent evaluators. One NFC scout says Whiteis "soft for a big guy. He doesn't knock people over, and you can tell he'snot tough because he's not a good blocker. If somebody drafts him in the firstround, they're going to be disappointed." An AFC scout disagrees, however,saying, "With his size and running style he's what you want in most prosystems. When the kid's on, he's a beast." Indeed, White--billed as Thunderto Bush's Lightning--gained 913 of his 1,302 yards last season after initialcontact.

White isconfident he'll come away smiling on draft day. "Whatever team picks me,they're going to get a dedicated football player who wants to win a SuperBowl--and then win some more," he says. "At the end of the day I'm theonly 6'1", 240-pound back in the draft. I've got a feeling it's all goingto work out."

Opinions on White vary. One scout calls him "softfor a big guy." Another says, "When the kid's on, he's abeast."
Despite setting the USC career mark for rushing touchdowns, White has seen hisdraft stock waver in recent weeks.