The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder churned out 49 yards on 12 carries in that season-opening victory, and finished the season as the team leader in rushing yards (399) and carries (95). But the coaching staff decided to move in a different direction following the 4-8 campaign, and White soon found himself on a roller coaster ride over the next two seasons.
"It was tough mentally," said White, who rushed for 5,133 yards and 70 touchdowns in high school. "I don't want to say it upset me, I was just unsure and I wasn't as confident in my abilities at other positions as I felt like I was at tailback. But I just trusted in what the coaches were saying and tried to find ways to get on the field."
The position changes came fast and furious. His red-shirt sophomore season started with a training camp experiment at cornerback, but only several games into the '08 season, White was moved to wide receiver. The Asheville, N.C. native stayed there for nearly 12 months before Shaun Draughn injured his shoulder last November against Duke, forcing a move back to running back merely as a security blanket.
"In some respects, you certainly feel sorry a little bit for Johnny," Davis told reporters on Monday. "He's such a great kid and he's such a hard worker… We've tried him at slot receiver and wide receiver, we tried him at corner [and] we've tried him at running back.
"He got thrust into the role last year in the second half of the season with the injuries to go back to the running back position. He didn't have a spring practice there, he didn't have training camp there and he didn't have the first half of the season. He was just thrust into that role and I thought he did okay. I think he's done remarkably well. Hopefully it will keep us where we have a good, fresh running back in the game at all times."
Instead of dwelling in the past, White considers his various position changes as educational experiences, helping to further his knowledge base of football.
"It helped me out just with my overall understanding of the game," White said. "Being at receiver, you understand what happens on the perimeter more and how blocks are set up out there, and then being on the defensive side of the ball, it just helps give me a defensive mentality so I can have an idea of what they're thinking when I'm running the ball."
Despite living in Chapel Hill since the summer of '06, White participated in his first full spring practice at running back earlier this year. That rekindling created a flame that burned through the offseason into training camp, and it has shown no signs of going out for a second time at North Carolina.
It was apparent to the fan base and media heading into the '10 season that Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston had the running back position on lockdown. But White has emerged as a viable third option, legitimately pushing his best friend and classmate for the starting spot this preseason.
"It's just being around the block a few times, I guess, and just becoming more confident in my game," White said. "I'm trusting my ability more. I think the confidence factor is a big thing. Early in my career, I was thinking a little too much and probably wasn't playing to the best of my ability physically. But I think now I've set that thinking to the side and go off instincts – do what I've known to do since high school."
There's no doubt that White has always possessed the athleticism to be an offseason weapon. Even after gaining 20 pounds, the fifth-year senior still clocked a 4.29 40-yard dash two springs ago. Those attributes have led to his inclusion on most special teams units, highlighted by his starting role on the kickoff return team.
The special teams co-captain tallied 16 tackles on coverage units and averaged 20.5 yards per kickoff return on 18 opportunities.
It would have been easy for White to hang his head following the '07 season and end his career in some isolated spot on the aluminum bench. But his persistence through the years has earned him one last chance at making a name for himself in the college landscape.