When the Bills fifth-round pick got to the North Carolina campus, he saw limited action as a freshman but averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry. Expecting to see his role expand as a sophomore, the coaching staff made a change. White was moved to the defensive side of the ball where he played cornerback for the first seven games of his sophomore season before returning to running back.
That was followed by a junior season where he saw most of his time on special teams as a return man while filling in at tailback. Named a special teams co-captain by his teammates, White averaged better than 20 yards a kick return with a pair of touchdowns that season.
White just took all the changes in stride.
“I think Coach (Butch) Davis just saw my versatility and felt like I could help in a lot of different places,” said White. “He asked me to do some things on the team when we had lack of depth at a position and I was willing to do it. I just trusted what they were saying.”
That trust was finally rewarded his senior season when he was handed the starting tailback job. White was having a career year averaging more than 5.5 yards per carry before a broken collar bone cut his final college season short. Still, White finished with 720 rushing yards and had 24 receptions for better than 280 yards and seven touchdowns in just nine games. White also willingly filled in at receiver due to NCAA suspensions and when injuries hit the position.
Not being able to excel at running back while serving the team in so many other roles is what largely made him a day three draft choice. But the Bills see a prospect with a lot of promise.
“There’s a guy that is a very good running back, played a lot of positions, is a physical guy, can block and can catch the ball out of the backfield,” said head coach Chan Gailey. “He’s a good runner both inside, has run the ball outside some. He’s 209 pounds, 5’10” and pretty thickly built. He’s got good speed, but he’s a versatile back. He can do a little bit of everything.”
One of his more impressive traits as a runner is his ability to maintain his balance and momentum after initial contact. It was a rare occurrence when just one tackler brought him down on the first hit.
“He’s got some wiggle, but he will hit it up there,” said Bills scout Tom Roth. “For a 5’10”, 200-pound guy, he plays like he’s 6’1” 220 lbs. He hits it hard.”
“I think it’s balanced,” said White of his running style. “I try to not really dance around, one cut and positive yards. Always fall forward and I think I have some explosiveness also.”
What ultimately made White so attractive to Buffalo’s brass was how many different roles he can play for the Bills. With such a diverse set of football skills, it’ll be a lot easier for Gailey and his coaching staff to find a role for him.
“The thing that you know is he can be a jack-of-all-trades,” said Gailey. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can line up as a wideout. He can tackle. He can play special teams. He can carry the football. He can do a lot of things for you and it is so much easier when you’re trying to fit a guy like that in with two players that are already entrenched in their position so to speak. You’ve got a guy now that can do some of what C.J. (Spiller) does and some of what Fred (Jackson) does. That’s a real advantage for him in our offense.”
In the end White feels all that moving around has helped to better prepare him for the NFL, knowing prospects don’t often walk into starting roles on offense or defense.
“Some guys come into the league not expecting to play special teams, but that’s part of my game,” said White. “I think that’s something else that I bring to the table – a willingness to play special teams and I understand how important it is to winning games.”
Seeing White take a selfless approach in college has Buffalo’s coaching staff encouraged that they have a rookie that not only says he’s willing to do anything, but has a college career that proves it.
“He’s a guy that can come in and give us some depth and play special teams and is smart enough to learn all the spots so it was a good pick for us,” said Gailey.
“A complementary back, that’s Johnny for you,” said Roth. “Special teams is big with him, but everything else he brings to the table. He’s a great kid, just an unbelievable kid.”