Lofty comparisons come easily when people see Rachaad White play.
The Bucs rookie has yet to play his first snap in a real NFL game and the third-round pick from Arizona State has just 15 games of major college football under his belt. But at whatever level he has played, his build (6-foot-0, 214 pounds) and his patient running style have made people think of historically great running backs.
The 23-year-old had finished his second season at juco Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., and after UCLA had pulled its scholarship offer the following spring in 2020, his coach was talking about White to former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce, who played at Mt. San Antonio College and was the defensive coordinator at Arizona State.
“He’s special,” said Bob Jastrab, still the head coach there, to his former player. “(Pierce) said, ‘He doesn’t look fast.’ So I go, ‘Remember Marcus Allen? He didn’t look fast either, but when he got loose, no one could catch him.’ He’s just so smooth, and I relate him to Marcus in how he just glides.”
Former Bucs coach Bruce Arians, now a consultant with the team, says White reminds him of another Hall of Fame running back he coached with the Colts, Edgerrin James, and White’s teammates have compared him to former All-Pro back Le’Veon Bell, who played for the Bucs briefly last year.
White will wear No. 29 with the Bucs, a number you don’t often see on a running back, but one made famous almost 40 years ago by Eric Dickerson, who wore that number with four different NFL teams on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We always compared (White) to Eric Dickerson because of the way he runs upright a little more and shows that patience and has really good vision,” said Bryan DeLong, his coach at Center High School in Kansas City. “Maybe that’s an easy cop-out because of the upright running style. He just ran unconventionally. With the evolution of offense, today’s running back isn’t a 30-carry, pound-him-up-in-there neck-shortener, and that lends to his skill set.”
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In fairness, White’s ability to draw out-of-this-world comparisons goes all the way back to his birth. His middle name is Kyelle, and his mother, Rochelle Woods, told the Cronkite News at Arizona State that she gave him that name, the youngest of her four boys, as a nod to Superman’s given name on Krypton, Kal-El.
“I used to watch Cartoon Network when I was pregnant with him all the time,” she told the student news broadcast last fall. “So I put the E-L-L-E in his middle name.”
For all the flattering parallels that White draws, he is in the NFL today because he believed in himself when few others did. Coming out of Center High, White wasn’t a prominent college recruit, limited his junior year by a collarbone injury and piling up more than 2,000 yards of total offense his senior year. He got interest mainly from local schools in the Division II Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association and the FCS Missouri Valley Conference, and even those schools were unsure.
He played both ways in high school, and most schools saw him as a safety. Division II Nebraska-Kearney offered him as a running back, but he had to redshirt his first year at the school.
“I’ll be honest, a lot of those schools that looked at him, it makes Rachaad mad when they say this, but they didn’t think he was fast enough,” DeLong said. “His top-end speed in high school, he wasn’t a 100-meter champion in track and they didn’t think he was dynamic enough in the speed category to be their running back.”
Arizona State’s Rachaad White and the ‘Big Brother’ support system behind him https://t.co/HIINS9B8PP
— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) January 19, 2021
After a year at Nebraska-Kearney, White took a chance, bet on himself and went far from home to Mt. SAC, where there was no student housing, putting him in tough conditions sharing an apartment with teammates. Even his first year there was a quiet one — 392 rushing yards and two touchdowns — but he found himself in 2019, rushing for 1,264 yards and 10 scores.
“I’ve had a lot of great players come through my door — NFL guys like Antonio Pierce, Bruce Irvin, Delanie Walker — but Rachaad, I would put him up in the first two or three guys that have worked the hardest for us on the field,” Jastrab said. “You could tell, everything he did, whether it’s running sprints or anything else, he wanted to win, to be the best. … It didn’t happen by accident. He’s in the NFL because of his work ethic and what he did to prepare himself to play the game. You could see, when he got loose, he was gone.”
Back home in Kansas City, as White was getting recruited by major schools across the country, DeLong was getting calls from those same small-school recruiters who three years earlier had seen White as a slow safety prospect.
“It was funny, when he came out of juco, a couple of those coaches called me. ‘Hey, you have Rachaad’s contacts? He’s really done well for himself,’” he said. “I tried as nicely as I could say: ‘Fellas, he’s kind of in a bigger pond now.’ UCLA had offered him, Utah had called me, Boise State and schools like that. So I said, ‘You’re welcome to call him.’ It’s crazy. I’ve had a couple come by since, and they say ‘Coach, I really missed on that one.’”
Asked what back White reminds him of, Arizona State coach Herm Edwards is cautionary at first.
“He’s not Eric Dickerson, obviously. He’s not Marcus Allen,” Edwards said by phone last week, though neither back had been suggested as a comparison. “But he’s kind of like … Marcus is a good friend. Marcus might be an inch taller than him. Watch it now.”
Edwards knows a thing or two about bigger running backs. He played with Dickerson on the Rams in 1986, and he was a defensive assistant with the Chiefs for three seasons when Allen played in Kansas City. He brings up another oversized back he played with at Cal, Chuck Muncie (6-3, 227), and one he coached with the Chiefs, Larry Johnson (6-1, 235).
“I can tackle Rachaad White.” 🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩🚩 pic.twitter.com/ev5FttFYSC
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) October 14, 2021
“He’s a little bit of a slasher,” Edwards said of White. “Great patience and vision. He has a sense of where the hole is going to be, then he can accelerate in the hole. He has a funny running style because he’s not a 5-10 back. He’s bigger than that. The average back in the NFL is 5-10, 5-11. When you get guys over six foot, it’s like, ‘Man, big back.’”
Edwards overlapped with Arians in Kansas City in 1992; both got their first NFL jobs on Marty Schottenheimer’s Chiefs staff. He said White’s pass-catching ability fits in with the offense Byron Leftwich will run this fall, and with Tom Brady’s long history of throwing frequently to his running backs.
“He has really good hands, and I know they were looking for a back to come out of the backfield and catch some balls. He’s a terrific ball catcher,” Edwards said. “What you really like about him is his size, his ability to absorb contact and keep his balance.”
Tampa Bay relied heavily on Leonard Fournette last season as a three-down back, then signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal to bring him back as a free agent. So White’s challenge will be chipping into Fournette’s workload, having already gotten work ahead of veterans Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard to set himself up as a solid No. 2 back and complement Fournette, who has taken him under his wing this first year.
“Lenny, he helps me out with his leadership. He always just makes sure I (mind) my p’s and q’s,’” White said. “He just knew how it was for a rookie, making sure that I’m consistent. He preaches that to me every day: Just keep being consistent, keep being you, keep going out there and having fun. … He preaches the same thing: Don’t let anybody try you, make sure you protect yourself and go out there and play ball.”
Ready to keep building 💪
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) August 28, 2022
Bucs coaches have been as impressed with White’s maturity and approach as they have with anything he has done on the practice field or in games. Bucs general manager Jason Licht compared his immediate maturity to receiver Chris Godwin’s, truly high praise, and the team has taken notice of how committed he is to learning how to be an NFL running back.
“He’s a man’s man,” Leftwich said. “For a young guy, he is really thorough guy. He’s really aware, he’s really smart, and he plays the game in a physical way. He takes notes like a quarterback, so he’s a real smart kid that has an understanding and a feel for football, which allows him to play the way that he plays.”
White’s body of work in major college football is limited compared to the rest of the rookie class of running backs. With Arizona State playing only four games in 2020 due to COVID-19 limitations, he played 15 games there in two years. Of the first 10 backs drafted in April, the next-lowest number of career FBS games is 32, more than twice as many. Commanders RB Brian Robinson played 55 games at Alabama, the Texans’ Dameon Pierce played 48 games at Florida and the Bills’ James Cook played 46 games at Georgia.
That makes White less proven, of course, but also means he could still be learning and growing as a running back. In 11 games last season, he piled up 1,000 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns for the Sun Devils, with another 456 receiving yards on 43 catches.
Edwards remembers a closely contested game Arizona State had with Washington last year, in which White rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Just before halftime, the Sun Devils trailed 14-0 when they sent White out of the backfield and down the far sideline to reel in an 18-yard catch that set up their first touchdown, the first points on the way to a 35-30 comeback victory.
“It was kind of a slugfest game, and we threw him a pass, away from our bench, and it was like, ‘Aw, man, it’s overthrown.’ But he jumped up and caught that thing, came down with his feet,” Edwards said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me right now?’ You watch him sometimes and think, ‘This is a talented player,’ and I think he has a lot of room to grow.”
WHAT A CATCH BY RACHAAD WHITE.@JayD__5 » @3_chaad
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) November 14, 2021
The NFL had this past weekend off before teams prepare for this week’s season opener, and the Bucs gave players Friday through Sunday off as a last break before the season begins. As Center High prepared for its game Friday night, White popped his head in the coaches’ room, surprising them with a visit as a proud alum.
“Wow, he’s a grown man now,” DeLong said. “He’s developed so much in the weight room and to be able to gain that much size and increase your speed is very impressive. He’s always been a hard-nosed kid, chip on his shoulder, hard worker, going to prove people wrong. And wow, has he. He’s opened so many doors by himself, just through hard work and perseverance. It’s a testament to his determination and not taking no for an answer.”
(Photo of Rachaad White: Kim Klement / USA Today)
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