John White stood on the turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium recently, fully gassed after making one quick cut after another as he evaded would-be tacklers in Utah's drills.
He was exhausted, but satisfied.
"I am ready," he said. "I am ready to get this season going."
He'd better be. White, a transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College, is a guy who is small in stature but one who is expected to be a big key to the Utes' success in 2011.
The Utes' desire to have an offense based around a ground game put a spotlight on the battle to find the top running back.
At just 5-foot-8 and 186 pounds, White was a little easy to overlook against the other leading candidates: Harvey Langi, a former star and highly rated recruit; Thretton Palamo, a former star for the U.S. national rugby team; and veteran Tauni Vakapuna, who left the team at the end of the 2010 season but returned in the summer.
In the end, it was White who won the battle against the bigger backs by using the same speed and quickness that helped him set Harbor College school records when he rushed for 2,527 yards and 34 touchdowns in his two-year career.
What he lacks in bulk, he makes up for in confidence.
"I'm not used to talking about myself, but I think I can do it all," he said. "I can run up the middle, bounce outside, shake people."
A native of Torrance, Calif., White dreamed about playing for Cal. While that dream never came to fruition, he found a home at Utah thanks to the recruitment of Kalani Sitake, Utah's defensive coordinator, who recruits the Los Angeles area.
"He took me under his wing and showed me around and never talked about the other schools," White said. "This felt like the right place for me. He told me I'd have to work hard, and that is what I like."
White embraced the challenge and soon emerged as the best candidate to lead the running attack.
While small, White has the ability to handle Pac-12 defenses, said Utah running backs coach Dave Schramm.
"He plays fast and he works extremely hard," Schramm said. "He makes few mental mistakes and he and Tauni were able to separate themselves from the others."
While Vakapuna is more of a bruising runner, White is more elusive and quick, giving the Utes a look they haven't had in a long time, said Schramm, who is in his seventh year with the program.
"He is a little guy and we've had Quinton Ganther, Darrell Mack, Matt [Asiata] and Eddie [Wide], and he isn't like any of them,"Schramm said. "But he is smart and he carries what he learns in the film room to the field."
Last year, the Utes' rushing duties were shared by Asiata and Wide, with Asiata rushing 155 times for 695 yards and eight touchdowns, and Wide rushing 149 times for 717 yards and 11 touchdowns.
This year, it's expected that White will get the majority of the carries, although Whittingham said the Utes will manage White much like they did Wide, by putting a cap on the number of carries he makes per game with the goal of helping him last a season.
"He carried the ball a bunch of times in junior college and he has proven to be durable," Whittingham said. "But we will find out. We'll treat him like Eddie Wide and give him 15 to 18 carries a game, which is just about the bulk of it. We'll need another handful from the other guys or something like that."
White isn't worried about how many carries he'll get or unsure if he can take the pounding Pac-12 defenders will try to give him. For now, he's just excited to get a chance to show off his skills.
"I wanted my family to be able to see me play all around the West Coast, so it will be great," he said. "This is what I want."
Utah running back depth chart
1. John White 5-8, 186, Jr.
2. Tauni Vakapuna 5-9, 229, Sr.
3. Harvey Langi 6-1, 225, Fr. (tie)
3. Thretton Palamo 6-2, 240, So. (tie)
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