Front and center

Junior strong safety Johnny White is maturing as a player, learning to become a leader

There is no questioning Johnny White's athletic ability. In fact, if there was a prototype for a strong safety, White might be it. He stands 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, covers 40 yards in 4.46 seconds, bench presses 350 pounds and squats 530.

White's raw athleticism has been impressive through his first two years on the University of Wisconsin football team. He even started the first two games of 2004, in place of injured then-senior Robert Brooks.

Now a junior, White's game is becoming more nuanced as he looks to replace Brooks in the starting lineup and potentially become one of the Badgers' leaders on defense.

"I know that I need to improve on my technique," White said. "I rely on my athletic ability too much. And that can get you into trouble because at this level everybody's athletic and what sets people apart is that mental aspect of the game and technique."

With his size, speed and strength, White has long flashed the ability to deliver jarring blows. But after spring practices ended in April, he went into the offseason focused on the particulars of playing his position.

"It is more of coming in under control. I tend to get a little impatient and try to go blow up the hole," he said. "I need to just slow down a little bit ‘cause I need to realize that a one-yard gain is better than them breaking it. I try to make it a… tackle for loss every time and it doesn't need to be that way."

"It's always a fundamental game," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "You cross over one time on a read, you are going to be out of position. So you've got to have a good base, you've got to have great fundamentals and then when it's time to come make a play you've got to be physical."

White's size and speed are reminiscent of Georgia safety Thomas Davis, the 230-pounder who had eight tackles against UW in the Outback Bowl Jan. 1. Like Davis, White looks like a linebacker when he lines up ‘in the box', and he hits harder than most, regardless of position.

But the analogy quickly dries up. Significantly, the Badgers' system demands more from its safeties in terms of coverage responsibilities. And to put it delicately, coverage was not White's strong suit as a freshman or sophomore.

This camp season, however, White has done a much better job tracking tight ends and receivers.

"He's a lot more fluid than he was last year and he's about the same weight," Lee said. "I think he knows that this is his time and to take this challenge and go with it. There is no more sitting back, waiting for someone else to get out of the game or get hurt and go in. It's his chance to go out there and prove that that's his spot."

Last spring, UW head coach Barry Alvarez met with players he felt were potential captains and should assume leadership roles on the team. Despite the two starts, White enters this season with minimal playing time under his belt. Yet the Pearland, Texas, native was one of the dozen or so on Alvarez's list.

"Basically guys like me needed to step up," White said. "[Alvarez] brought me aside and told me that I have the physical ability and that I just need to mature a little bit….

"By being a leader, I need to be more vocal… set my example for the younger guys to follow since I'm an older guy now."

White said he was a little surprised that Alvarez spoke with him, considering the seniors who could fill the leadership role. But he also knew that he had the ability to be a leader on the team and Alvarez's gesture resonated with him.

"It does a lot for your confidence," White said. "And coming from a coach like coach Alvarez, he's seen a lot of good leaders. So that just makes me more aware of what I need to do with this team and… the role I have to play."

White is being helped along in his development by the presence of another former starter at strong safety, fellow junior Joe Stellmacher, who opened one game in 2003.

"It just makes you better," White said of his competition with Stellmacher. "Joe's having a really good camp too. So it just makes me play better and makes me focus harder on what I need to do because I lot of people get content with being in that No. 1 spot and not having anybody behind them pushing them. With somebody pushing you from behind you can go to greater depths because you know he's right behind you so you know you need to get better."

Badger Nation Top Stories