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White puts the Thunder in USC's offense

LOS ANGELES -- Texas coach Mack Brown calls him "the forgotten man" of the Rose Bowl, a label that USC junior LenDale White swats away as if it were just another tackler.

"Man, if you call almost 1,200 yards and 20-something touchdowns forgotten, I don't know," White said after practice Friday at Howard Jones Field on the USC campus. "I did all I could do to help my team. When a back like Reggie [Bush] can do all the things he can do, that's what happens. Do your part and shut up and win games."

After 1,178 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns, White has done his part and -- most of the time -- shut up as USC has lengthened its winning streak to 34 games and churned toward a Rose Bowl showdown with Texas for a third consecutive national championship.

If Bush is Trojan Lightning, flashing and zigzagging in any direction, then White has been Thunder, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound, knees-up, shoulders-down combination of power and speed. White, a Denver native, hasn't been forgotten so much as he's been a leading man who has made his peace with a supporting role.

There's an emerging school of thought regarding USC that maintains that White is the engine that makes the Trojan offense roar. Without his ability to pound between the tackles, Bush wouldn't be nearly as effective working the edges. It may be a sympathetic reaction to White, who has surrendered the spotlight as Bush has won the Heisman Trophy.

But it also may be the truth.

"The problem we've got," Brown said of defending USC, "is about the time you start running sideways with Reggie, ol' LenDale White busts you in the mouth. … He's a third-team All-American as a backup tailback. Can you even imagine?"

It is more than Brown imagined when he attempted to sign White in February 2003. White narrowed his decision to the two schools that will play each other in the Rose Bowl.

"We were right about him, too," Brown said. "I wish we weren't right. Our evaluation was good. Our recruiting technique was not."

The idea of White as the forgotten man did not originate with Brown. It has been a theme of White's three seasons with the Trojans. Bush collected oohs, aahs and magazine covers. White collected yards, touchdowns and hits.

"I gave myself a concussion tackling him," USC free safety Scott Ware said. "That's how hard he hits. He's low. He keeps his motor running. He's thick around the middle."
About the body: Running back coach Fred McNair nicknamed White "Pudge," and not because of his resemblance to Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk.

"I ain't the Godbody like Reggie Bush or [strong safety] Darnell Bing," White said. "I got a little stomach.

Nobody who tackles him forgets him. It's the headlines that White didn't collect that gave birth to the notion of him being overlooked. The idea has waxed and waned based on the distribution of carries between Bush and White. It waxed when White said he didn't know what the coaches were thinking after he carried the ball 13 times for 69 yards in the opener against Hawaii.

"I wasn't confused at all," White said Friday. "I told the reporters I don't know what's going on, meaning I can't control what's going on. When Reggie is in on the goal line, I can't make myself go in and take him out. When it happens, it just happens. I don't call the plays."

The tension waned when coach Pete Carroll made fun of the situation come Halloween. Carroll had White "stalk" out of practice and go to the roof of a building adjacent to the practice field and begin to threaten to jump off. A trainer threw a dummy off the roof dressed in White's practice gear.

That said more about the nature of White's feelings about the team than any reassuring pronouncement he might have made. White and Bush have co-existed easily throughout their three seasons at USC. They both maintain that they are good friends. Carroll sent White with Bush to New York to lend moral support during the Heisman announcement and the festivities afterward.

Only the cynical would ever, ever, ever suspect that Carroll did so to give White a taste of what might be in store for him next season. If White returns to USC as a senior, he would also be on the short list of Heisman favorites, especially if Bush goes to the NFL as expected.

"He [Carroll] knew I wanted to be there for Reggie and Matt," White said. "I love those guys and respect them. I don't think it was to show me that's what I can have. He doesn't coach like that at all … I know he wants to win games a lot more than he wants to win the Heisman."

Said Carroll, "He did have an opportunity to see what that's all about and to experience it, but that was by no means a motivating decision or an incentive or anything like that."

Within the walls of Heritage Hall on the USC campus, there is more hope than expectation that White will follow the lead of Leinart and return for his senior season. White was held out of 2005 spring practice so that he could focus on academics. The NFL, as juniors have noted through 20-plus years that they have been drafted, has no academics.

White has sent conflicting signals regarding the decision he will make in the week after the Rose Bowl. In the locker room after the 66-19 victory over UCLA on Dec. 3, White pointedly told reporters, "I got another year of football at 'SC."

Whoever gets White will get a proven back without many miles on him. In 1981, when Marcus Allen won the Heisman Trophy as a Trojan tailback, he had 433 carries. White didn't pass that point in his career until the third quarter of the Notre Dame game this season. He says he feels great, part of a renewed commitment to the weight room that followed his absence from the practice field last spring.

Throughout his career at USC, White has leaned on his cousin, Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups, for advice about how to deal with top-level athletics, coaches and life in the public eye. Billups, like White, is from Denver. He went to Colorado, and left after two seasons for the NBA.

"I go to him when everything is not going to my way. I call him to see how he would handle it. He's been through it, from not playing a lot, to sitting on the bench, to being [the 2004 NBA Finals] MVP. He clearly knows everything about what position I've been in, what I've been through and I'm going through."

White has also spoken with former Denver Bronco running backs Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson and current Redskin Clinton Portis, looking for advice. The best advice he got, he said, came from Billups.

"He told me … all the money, all the things, it's fun for him, but when you're in college you can just live life," White said. "You ain't got to worry about paying bills. You're not worrying about real life. Now he has to live for his kids, his family. This is an experience you're never going through again.

"I'm leaning toward my heart. I'm going to pray on it. Today I may say I'm leaving. Tomorrow I may say I'm going to stay. … I play football because I love it. Maybe one day I can do my ultimate dream and go to the NFL but it's not everything. I'm winning national championships. That's stuff people play their whole lives and don't get to do. I'm playing for my third national championship in three years. I don't think that's bad."

It is, in fact, a good way to keep from being forgotten.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.