Back-Seat Driver

Times Staff Writer

It takes about five minutes -- not so long, really -- for LenDale White to come clean. After careful answers and platitudes, the other USC tailback walks off the practice field, ducks down a corridor to the locker room and begins to talk.

"Actually," he says, leaning against a concrete wall, "I'm a selfish football player and I want the ball all the time."

Same old story. Same predicament he has faced all season.

His talent is such that he could be a star, the star, on almost any team except the one for which he plays. With the top-ranked Trojans playing second-ranked Texas for the national championship in the Rose Bowl, White has been lauded and cheered and much discussed, yet ultimately overshadowed by a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush.

"Not an easy situation," offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin says. "There have been games when Reggie gets the first six carries and LenDale's got nothing."

In the season opener at Hawaii, Bush not only dominated the action -- at least early on, when it was still a game -- he also scored from a goal-line formation, which had been White's domain.

Afterward, White lingered outside the locker room, apart from celebrating teammates, his mood seeming to waver between puzzlement and a full-on sulk.

"It's hard to be patient when you see everyone else doing good," he recalls. "Matt's having a stellar game or Reggie's having a stellar game, you want to get out there and be a part of it."

At that point, one day into the season, he faced a choice.

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A mirrored, Darth Vader-like visor across his facemask. A straight-ahead running style, backed by 235 pounds, that borders on corporal punishment. The young man whom teammates call "Pudge" is anything but.

In slightly less than three seasons, White has 3,035 yards rushing and holds the school record with 54 touchdowns.

The Longhorns, preparing for the game on Wednesday, figure he might be the X factor.

"Everybody is talking about Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart," Coach Mack Brown says. "But LenDale White has carried the ball 10 less times than Reggie Bush and has 1,200 yards."

Texas defensive tackle Rod Wright picks up on this theme, musing about White and Bush as a two-headed beast.

"Being a defensive player, when you have a big back that pounds the ball and then a guy like Reggie Bush who's shifty, that's a big change," Wright says. "It's hard to play both of them."

The tailbacks began this way, a tandem, nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning" as freshmen. White announced his presence first.

Midway through the 2003 season, with USC trailing Arizona State and Leinart hobbled, White rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns, sparking a comeback. Leinart got much of the credit for playing injured, but fullback Brandon Hancock says, "LenDale was the difference maker. You could tell this guy was going to be a serious threat."

That season and the next, as USC embarked on what is now a 34-game winning streak, White led the team in rushing yardage and touchdowns. Bush was always flashier, but the bigger tailback proved a steadying force, getting most of the carries, hammering Oklahoma for 118 yards and two scores on a sore ankle in the 2005 Orange Bowl.

But then he missed spring practice because of academic issues while Bush worked harder than ever, adding strength to his repertoire. Just that quickly, the balance shifted.

The coaches made a point of naming Bush the starter in summer camp.

Bush also joined Leinart on the cover of the media guide and in a weekly Internet feature, MattReggieTV.com.

Then came the Hawaii game.

"Things happen," White says. "You don't just cruise through life."

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The second of Anita White's three children was always emotional, if not downright impulsive.

"He wants to get it done," his mother says. "Let's go. Let's get it done now."

With no father in the picture, Anita sought to teach him patience. With help from an uncle and a Denver Bronco fan of a grandmother, she nudged the boy toward football, even when he shuddered at the prospect of getting hit.

Though reluctant, LenDale showed talent in youth leagues and was blossoming into a high school star in Denver when, late in his sophomore season, a man came to practice with a gun, causing the team to scatter.

Again, Anita helped keep LenDale going.

He transferred to a school 40 minutes away, which meant long commutes, and a funny thing happened. The game took hold of him. By the end of his senior season, he had amassed 7,803 yards, best in Colorado high school history.

The Trojans came calling, and it didn't matter that they were recruiting Bush and another talented back, Chauncey Washington. At least, that's what LenDale told everyone. He chose USC -- over Texas, no less -- because of Coach Pete Carroll's reputation for playing freshmen.

"I wanted to play for the best team," he says. "Naturally, they're going to have the best players."

But once training camp began, Anita says, the competition caught him off-guard. To make matters worse, his grandmother, Sharon, fell gravely ill. After a few weeks, LenDale placed a phone call.

"Send me a ticket," he told his mother. "I'm coming home."

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Framed by sparkling earrings and a scruff of a beard, his face is round and shining, a blank slate that adopts a smile as easily as a sneer. Much of the time, White resembles an overgrown kid, joking with teammates, prodding them with wicked comments on the field.

When it comes to talking, the words erupt as fast as thoughts can form. For good and for bad.

Like when he declared he was leaving USC and had to be talked out of it by his mother.

Or last season, the day before the UCLA game, when Carroll sensed something was amiss with the team. He ushered staff members out of the room, closed the door and asked his players what they thought of the Bruins. White stood up and declared, "They're garbage."

His mother says: "It's my fault. I always told him, 'You're entitled to your opinion.' "

So this season, after the Hawaii game, people in and around the program watched carefully. Like waiting on a time bomb.

Except there was no explosion.

On the bus back to the hotel, Todd McNair, coach of the running backs, sat beside White. They talked about McNair's days serving as a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs, and about being a part of the Trojans' winning streak.

"I told him, 'It's never going to get better than what we've got right here,' " McNair says. "LenDale can be volatile but, when he comes down, he's very sensible."

In the weeks that followed, White toed the company line, inching his way back into the limelight. He ran for 60 yards against Arkansas, 111 at Oregon, 197 at Arizona State.

"Instead of complaining about not getting carries, when he did get into the game, he took it out on the other team," offensive coordinator Kiffin says. "At least, that's what it looked like to me."

Hancock saw the same thing: "He can be temperamental, but I think he plays better football when he's angry."

While Bush was assembling a highlight reel of a season, spinning and hurdling his way toward the Heisman, White kept charging linebackers, making safeties flinch. Offensive lineman Fred Matua calls him "our attitude."

It wasn't just anger. Something else was at work.

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Look back to the Washington State game, when White rumbled into the end zone from two yards out, flipping the ball to Snoop Dogg on the sideline. He considers the rapper a friend and sometime mentor. Same goes for cousin Chauncey Billups, an NBA star.

"I think I'm living in a dream sometimes," White says. "Meeting people and doing things you never thought you'd do. Where I come from, going to college isn't always an option. I can get a degree."

Where does discontent fit into this picture?

Or consider the infamous Halloween prank. Conspiring with his head coach, White pretended to be upset about not getting enough carries. He stormed off the practice field and reappeared, minutes later, screaming from atop a nearby building. In the blink of an eye, a dummy wearing No. 21 plummeted to the ground.

The fake suicide drew equal parts laughter and condemnation. "I did it, so I'll live with it," White says. Lost in the uproar was this point: He was capable of poking fun at his predicament.

A few weeks later against Fresno State, as Bush gained 513 all-purpose yards -- and White got only seven carries for 21 yards -- McNair kept glancing at the bigger back.

There would be no replay of the Hawaii game.

"You could see it in LenDale's face," McNair says. "Reggie's on a roll. Let him go."

White explains: "If you let your emotions get the best of you, you get crazy penalties on the football field, you tend to mess up in your outside life, get DUIs and things like that. You have to control your emotions."

And when asked about his favorite moment from this season, he gives an unexpected answer. Not the 179 yards against Arizona. Not the three touchdowns against UCLA. It was traveling to New York to watch Bush at the Heisman ceremony.

Some have suggested the trip was a ploy by Carroll, showing White what the future might hold if he returns for his senior season rather than leave early for the NFL. The junior talks about it in another vein.

"Just seeing Reggie get the trophy and hold it up in the air," he says. "I'm excited to be a part of that."

Don't be mistaken. He still wants the ball on every play. It still rankles him not to be the star. And there is a very real chance he will head for the pros this spring.

But if so, the big kid says that impatience won't be to blame. After a prickly regular season, with the Trojans looking to win a third consecutive national title, White swears that he has grown up.

"You aren't always going to get your way," he says. "I've learned that."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Dynamic duo

USC's tailback combination of LenDale White, above right, and Reggie Bush has been a vital part of the Trojans' offense the last three seasons. Their rushing statistics:

*--* 2003 SEASON Date Opponent White Bush Aug. 30 at Auburn 5 carries, 6 yards 5 carries, 9 yards Sept. 6 BYU No carries 6 carries, 19 yards Sept. 13 Hawaii 10 carries, 58 9 carries, 54 yards, 2 TDs yards, 2 TDs Sept. 27 at California 2 carries, 6 4 carries, 7 yards yards, TD Oct. 4 at Arizona State 21 carries, 140 4 carries, 27 yards, 2 TDs yards Oct. 11 Stanford 23 carries, 108 6 carries, 34 yards, 2 TDs yards Oct. 18 at Notre Dame 16 carries, 75 6 carries, 89 yards yards, TD Oct. 25 at Washington 9 carries, 29 12 carries, 81 yards, TD yards Nov. 1 Washington State 12 carries, 149 7 carries, 15 yards, TD yards Nov. 15 at Arizona 15 carries, 90 11 carries, 64 yards, 2 TDs yards Nov. 22 UCLA 10 carries, 33 6 carries, 10 yards, TD yards Dec. 6 Oregon State 10 carries, 34 6 carries, 71 yards, TD yards, Jan. 1, '04 Michigan 8 carries, 26 yards 8 carries, 41 yards 2004 SEASON Date Opponent White Bush Aug. 28 Virginia Tech 15 carries, 78 9 carries, 27 yards yards Sept. 11 Colorado State 14 carries, 123 12 carries, 84 yards, 3 TDs yards, TD Sept. 18 at BYU 17 carries, 110 14 carries, 124 yards, TD yards, TD Sept. 25 at Stanford 11 carries, 24 16 carries, 95 yards, TD yards, TD Oct. 9 California 11 carries, 52 8 carries, 23 yards yards Oct. 16 Arizona State 16 carries, 68 5 carries, 21 yards yards Oct. 23 Washington 17 carries, 93 13 carries, 55 yards, 2 TDs yards Oct. 30 at Wash. State 16 carries, 77 14 carries, 42 yards, 2 TDs yards, TD Nov. 6 at Oregon State 25 carries, 116 11 carries, 88 yards, TD yards Nov. 13 Arizona 16 carries, 118, 3 12 carries, 45 TDs yards Nov. 27 Notre Dame 14 carries, 51 8 carries, 25 yards yards Dec. 4 at UCLA 16 carries, 75 15 carries, 204 yards yards, 2 TDs Jan. 1, '05 Oklahoma 15 carries, 118 6 carries, 75 yards, 2 TDs yards 2005 SEASON Date Opponent White Bush Sept. 3 at Hawaii 13 carries, 69 12 carries, 86 yards yards, 2 TDs Sept. 17 Arkansas 10 carries, 60 8 carries, 125 yards, 2 TDs yards, TD Sept. 24 at Oregon 15 carries, 111 20 carries, 122 yards, 2 TDs yards, TD Oct. 1 at Arizona State 19 carries, 197 17 carries, 158 yards, 2 TDs yards, 2 TDs Oct. 8 Arizona 24 carries, 179 14 carries, 110 yards, 4 TDs yards Oct. 15 at Notre Dame 10 carries, 26 15 carries, 160 yards, TD yards, 3 TDs Oct. 22 at Washington 16 carries, 56 8 carries, 51 yards yards, TD Oct. 29 Washington State 20 carries, 155 17 carries, 97 yards, 2 TDs yards Nov. 5 Stanford 13 carries, 60 12 carries 113 yards, TD yards, TD Nov. 12 at California 16 carries, 90 17 carries, 82 yards, 3 TDs yards Nov. 19 Fresno St 7 carries, 21 23 carries, 294 yards, 2 TDs yards, 2 TDs Dec. 3 UCLA 14 carries, 154 24 carries, 260 yards, 2 TDs yards, 2 TDs TOTALS White: 521 Bush: 420 carries, 3,035 carries, 3,087 yards (5.8 per yards (7.4 per carry), 49 TDs carry), 24 TDs

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