The Buccaneers rookie running back’s emphatic highlight-reel stiff arm of Seahawks cornerback Quandre Diggs sent his opponent flying through the air at the end of a 29-yard run in Munich two weeks ago. And it also served as an arrival moment for the third-round pick from Arizona State, chosen by NFL Network as part of Kyle Brandt’s “Angry Runs” feature, which has an actual scepter mailed out to NFL players for the kinds of plays he showed in a breakout game he had against Seattle.
The run was decidedly angry. White, by his nature, is simply not. There are no weekly awards yet for “Irrepressibly Cheerful Runs,” but White tried to oblige, briefly mean-mugging for the cameras with little success.
“They told me ‘You’ve got to put a serious face on,'” he said of the camera shoot with the scepter, where he also held his 1-year-old daughter, Nevaeh. “Some of the pictures they posted, you can see it’s kind of, like, forced. You see a little smirk coming out. I don’t know. I just play football hard. Somebody asked me if I see myself as an angry runner. I just run hard.”
White can’t help but smile these days, thankful for his daughter and so much else in his life. An emerging role in the Bucs’ offense could jump to another level this week, as veteran Leonard Fournette is dealing with a hip pointer that has limited him in practice this week. Before the Munich game, Fournette was dealing with passport issues that put his travel in jeopardy, so the Bucs spent some of the week preparing as if he couldn’t make the trip, and White got the start as a result.
Tampa Bay’s run game had been historically bad this season, ranking among the NFL’s worst ever in yards per game and yards per carry. It’s important to find an offensive balance to keep defenses honest and not rely too much on the arm of 45-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, on pace to reset his career high in pass attempts. But against Seattle, White finished with 22 carries for 105 yards, and Fournette chipped in with 14 carries for 57 yards, between them, more than doubling their season average for yards.
As a tiny step in the right direction, the Bucs aren’t the worst run game in the NFL anymore, passing that honor to the Rams, and there’s hope that more consistent production in the ground game is ahead. Needing to grind out the final minutes of the game with a slim lead in Munich, White stepped up in a big way, getting runs of 12 and 18 yards to set up victory formation.
“You saw what he can bring,” coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday of his rookie running back. “He’s very athletic. He gives us a lot. Lenny gives us a lot as well. Depending on who gets hot at a certain time, we’ll ride that hand.”
Could Sunday be that game for White? Even if Fournette can dress and play, he’s unlikely to take on a heavy load, and the split was already trending in White’s direction. The Browns defense has given up at least 30 points in five games this season, all losses, and they’ve been vulnerable against the run. Buffalo rushed for 171 yards in Sunday’s win in Detroit, and Miami rushed for 195 yards the week before, dropping the Browns to 24th out of 32 teams in run defense, and 28th in yards per carry allowed.
White is just finding himself in the Bucs offense — before his big game in Germany, he had rushed for 117 yards all season, with another 135 receiving yards on 20 receptions. He played only 15 games in two seasons at Arizona State, so he still has growth and development ahead of him, even more than most rookie running backs.
“I’m very comfortable. Obviously, my confidence is at an all-time high, but it just comes along with it,” White said Monday. “It’s more about doing your job. The coaches put me in a great position, teach me the game, so I just keep learning as I go. The things I can control are my attitude and effort, and when I play, that’s what I control.”
One of the youngest players on the Bucs roster has drawn steady praise from the oldest, especially after the Munich game.
“He’s done a good job, and when he’s gotten his opportunities, he really took advantage of it,” Brady said Wednesday. “I think he’s a hard-working guy. It means a lot. (He) cares a lot. He’s got a good skillset in the run game and the pass game. He’s done a great job for us, and I think just more of what we saw, that’s what we’d all love to see.”
There could be more downfield stiff-arms in his future, perhaps even Sunday in Cleveland, but don’t think of White as an angry runner so much as an eager one.
“I’m just a big guy on opportunities, so that’s what I focus on,” he said this week. “When opportunities come, I just have to make the most of them. I’ve got a lot of great guys in my corner, my family and my friends and things like that, and we all understand that life is about opportunities. Eventually, everyone is going to get their shot, and when you get your shot, it’s about what you make of it.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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