White steps up to challenge

Johnny White (AJ Maclean/Badger Nation)

Junior strong safety fills in for starter Joe Stellmacher in a big way

MADISON — Johnny White looked strong in fall practice. So strong, in fact, that the strong safety earned himself a starting job on opening day against Bowling Green.

But his performance in the 56-42 UW victory over the Falcons — a game in which the defense allowed Omar Jacobs to throw for more than 450 yards — bumped him to the bench behind junior Joe Stellmacher.

Three weeks later, with the Badger defense on the rise and White still on the bench, who knew when, or even if, White would see significant playing time again?

That time unexpectedly came midway through the second quarter Saturday when Stellmacher left the game with an injured shoulder.

Stellmacher was originally injured on the first drive of the game for Michigan. He left for a number or plays, but returned on the final play of that same drive, making the key hit that kept the Wolverines out of the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the one yard line.

The Berlin, Wis., native continued to play until he re-aggravated the injury halfway through the second quarter.

The injury could have been costly to the Badger defense, but White was not going to let his team down.

"I wasn't really thinking about redeeming myself," White said. "I just didn't want to bring my team down."

Truth was, he had been pretty down on his spirits as of late. He played sparingly against Temple two weeks ago, but did not get in the game against North Carolina last Saturday. But a talk with defensive coordinator Bret Bielema early in the week sparked a renewed energy.

"On Tuesday I came in and he was sitting on the bench and he was kind of down," Bielema said. "We talked about 15 minutes, just about what it's all about."

The chat charged White up and he had two of his best practices all season on Wednesday and Thursday.

"He practiced unbelievable Wednesday and Thursday," Bielema said. "I made a point of it to our defense on Friday and today after the game I made it a point because here's a guy who had every reason to throw in the towel.

"[When Stellmacher went down] Johnny was just walking to me, I just grabbed him and said ‘This is what you practiced for.' I just couldn't be prouder or happier for a kid."

White's play was solid to end the half and through the third quarter, but he really drew attention early in the fourth quarter.

The Pearland, Texas, native snagged the momentum early on in the fourth quarter. Michigan running back Max Martin took a handoff and ran through a hole for 11 yards before he was hit by White and lost the ball.

Mark Zalewski recovered the fumble for the Badgers and two plays later Wisconsin had its first lead of the game.

"[White's] just playing at another level right now and it's so mental," Bielema said. "It's how you prepare and go about your day-to-day business that gets you where you are right now."

On the very next Michigan drive, White was at it again, this time leaping up to intercept a Chad Henne pass.

"[Coach Bielema] just sat me down and told me to keep my head up," White said. "He told me you never know when your opportunity is going to arise. I guess my opportunity was today."

For the game, White finished with eight tackles, including a team-high four solo tackles, to go along with the interception and forced fumble.

"I noticed Johnny playing during the game," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "He made big plays. He played with confidence. Johnny had a great week of practice. I felt very confident with Johnny in there. I'm really happy for him. He needed a game like that."

Those are significant words from a head coach who will rarely admit to noticing a player's performance without first looking at tape of the game.

It was unclear after the game just how much playing time White may have won back with Saturday night's performance. Bielema said he expected Stellmacher to be ready for next weekend's contest with Indiana.

Fans may remember tailback Brian Calhoun's performance, or quarterback John Stocco's game-winning touchdown run more than White's key effort on defense, but the safety will never forget the night he proved, not only to his doubters but also to himself, that he's still capable of playing at a Division I level.

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