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BEFORE LENDALE WHITE tells you about himself--and why he believes he'd be an excellent first-round pick for any team inclined to draft a 6'1", 240-pound running back--the former USC standout wants to make it very clear who he isn't. Terrell Owens, for starters. "I'm not TO," White insists. "I'm not a bad seed. On Saturdays, if my college teammates had to put a million dollars on somebody coming through, I have to say they'd have taken their chances on me."
Nor, White says, are recent comparisons with Ohio State star turned NFL washout Maurice Clarett valid. After missing the 2003 and '04 college seasons, Clarett turned up overweight at last year's NFL combine and performed poorly. Drafted at the end of the third round by the Broncos, he hurt his groin in training camp and was cut after failing to play in any of the team's first three preseason games.
"That's why I didn't run at pro day," White, 21, says of sitting out most of USC's star-studded workout session for NFL talent evaluators on April 2 with what was later revealed to be a partially torn hamstring. "I saw what Maurice Clarett went through in Denver last year. Maybe if he had been healthy, he could have been a good pro football player, but he never got a chance to show it. I'd rather take the loss now than end up doing something that hurts me down the road."
Just how much White, who isn't expected to resume training until mid-May, lost by not working out on pro day will be revealed on Saturday, when the draft opens at Radio City Music Hall. In a reality show otherwise known as How Low Can You Go?, White may end up reprising the gut-wrenching role played last year by Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had been touted as a possible No. 1 pick but fell to the Packers at No. 24. Once projected to go in the top 10 after rushing for 3,159 yards and a school-record 52 touchdowns in three seasons at USC, White could slip all the way out of the first round.
"He's obviously a good player, but you get concerned about a guy who doesn't work out in the spring," says Texans general manager Charley Casserly, whose team is expected to select White's USC running mate, Reggie Bush, with the No. 1 pick. "He's had weight fluctuations that he's admitted to, and if a guy isn't in good shape in the spring, that's a red flag. This isn't college football; this league requires a higher level of commitment. Plus, for all the talk about Reggie Bush not having to carry the load in college [he averaged 15.4 rushing attempts per game as a junior in 2005], White was also a 15-carry-a-game guy. The bottom line is, there are some questions about him, and you'd like to see some better answers than what we've seen in the spring."
Casserly made those comments a few days before an MRI had confirmed White's hamstring injury, which occurred while he was using a weight machine at the February combine, but the skepticism surrounding White isn't based solely on missed drills. As miserable as his pro day showing was--he participated only in the bench press, completing 15 reps at 225 pounds (one more than Trojans punter Tom Malone, and nine fewer than Bush), and weighed in at 244, six pounds heavier than he was at the combine--the way he came off after the event didn't help his reputation very much either. Following his unspectacular performance, White zoomed off in a tricked-out Range Rover. One AFC scout, watching the scene, speculated that the player "might have cost himself millions of dollars today."
White has heard all that--and worse--from multiple sources, not all of whom are well-placed. "It's like all of a sudden my life has become US Weekly," he said in mid-April, while nibbling on a fruit salad at a downtown L.A. restaurant. "I get phone calls every day telling me I'm going in the third round, that I've ruined my life, that my mother didn't raise me right. Even the girls I meet know all about what's being said."
The feedback hasn't been all bad. White says he received positive vibes from some of the NFL coaches he has met since the college season ended, including the Panthers' John Fox, with whom he had dinner (along with several other team officials) the night before pro day. Even after he decided not to work out at pro day, White says Panthers officials remained supportive.
"Coaches and scouts were coming up to me and saying, 'If you're really hurt, why risk it?' says White. 'We'd rather have you ready for the first minicamp.' The stuff you're hearing isn't coming from coach [Bill] Parcells's mouth or coach Fox's mouth. And besides, sometimes people put negative stuff out there just to make kids fall to their [team's] spot."
The Vikings (17th pick), Parcells's Cowboys (18th), Carolina (27th), the Jaguars (28th) and the Steelers (32nd) are among the teams believed to be considering White as a first-round selection, reasoning that a bruising back who played on a team that went 37--2 and won two national championships in his three seasons is equipped to succeed on the next level. But opinions on White's rushing skills even when he's on top of his game vary among talent evaluators. One NFC scout says White is "soft for a big guy. He doesn't knock people over, and you can tell he's not tough because he's not a good blocker. If somebody drafts him in the first round, they're going to be disappointed." An AFC scout disagrees, however, saying, "With his size and running style he's what you want in most pro systems. When the kid's on, he's a beast." Indeed, White--billed as Thunder to Bush's Lightning--gained 913 of his 1,302 yards last season after initial contact.