Before James White became a household name, he was a name in Dare Ogunbowale’s household. Whenever the former Wisconsin Badgers tailback needed a place to crash while visiting his old haunts in Madison, he had a standing invitation to bunk at Dare’s apartment, an open door for an old pal.
“He was just a good mentor, especially when I moved to running back,” Ogunbowale, a Badgers ball carrier from 2014 to ’16, says of White, the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl LI hero. “Melvin (Gordon, now of the San Diego Chargers), we would actually sit down and watch films together. All we really had to do was just watch him.
“That guy is really who I wanted to tailor my game after. I knew we had a similar (skill set). I saw the success that he was having, and I wanted to make sure I was doing that as well. All we had to was watch him and repeat the things he was doing.”
Truth be told, Ogunbowale saw himself in White before it was cool. Before Conan O’Brien. Before Disney World. Before the gift trucks, the fourth-quarter catches, and before the greatest bleeping comeback in Super Bowl history.
“We’re both shifty guys,” Ogunbowale told Land of 10 when asked about White, his teammate in 2012 and 2013. “We’ve both got very strong football IQs. I like to pride myself on that. I’ve heard some (of that), and I also see it firsthand.
“We’re probably going to have (a) similar role with teams. We both have good hands out of the backfield. We both run good routes. I think there’s truth to that comparison that other people draw.”
More NFL scouts are drawing that comparison, too, and the timing couldn’t be better. Good hands. Willing blocker. Strong runner. Team guy. Steady. Reliable. Smart. Tough as old bread.
“He was like a big brother to me over his time at Wisconsin,” Ogunbowale, the Badgers’ third-down backfield weapon of choice last fall, said of White, the hottest third-down backfield weapon on the planet. “What he was able to do definitely helped me out, in that people are already drawing comparisons between me and him and what he was able to do in the Super Bowl.”
‘We want to make sure we’re seen as all-around backs’
Ogunbowale was one of six Badgers invited to the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine that takes place at the end of the month and the only Wisconsin representative who wasn’t primarily a starter last fall. The Milwaukee native’s 91 carries in 2016 were the fewest of any of the 31 running backs on the combine guest list save for Oklahoma State’s Chris Carson (82).
And yet, those hands …
I like that Ogunbowale has a well rounded game: he’s a receiver, solid in pass pro, and strong as a runner. pic.twitter.com/4a2GmZXJXI
— Riley (@junioraumanac) January 6, 2017
“I think it’s just more so people recognizing what I was able to do on the field, even when (starter Corey Clement) was there,” said Ogunbowale, who made 10 starts during the past three seasons at tailback after switching to the position two weeks into the 2014 campaign. “I think of it as me being able to go to the combine and show them more. That’s how I see it.”
At 5 feet 11 and 205 pounds, what Ogunbowale lacks in terms of White’s Big Ten mileage (the latter carried the ball 643 times for the Badgers; the former, 319) he more than makes up for in voracity. And detail.
To wit: When Ogunbowale noticed another former teammate, TE Austin Traylor, launching a routine of catching 100 balls per day, rain or shine, he took it as inspiration to follow suit.
“That’s what I started doing to make sure I had full trust in my hands, and so the quarterbacks would have (that), as well,” the tailback said. “I saw Traylor doing that so (I figured) that’s what I needed to be doing as well.
“Me and Corey, we want to make sure we’re seen as all-around backs. But, at the same time, we’re just trying to make sure we’re complete players, and so we would even put in extra work … that extra work I did away from practice, that makes it seem like I had natural hands.”
Scouts who watched the Wisconsin native at the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month came away convinced, causing the White comparisons to pick up steam again — in a good way.
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) January 18, 2017
‘That was really more in the front of my mind’
Most NFL coaches prefer some sort of time share at tailback, an arrangement Ogunbowale’s already used to. And most general managers prefer a running back, especially a rookie who’s not likely to be taken in the first three rounds, to start contributing — and paying dues — on special teams first.
Been there. Done that. Twice over.
“Starting off at Wisconsin, you’re not going to be able to get on the field without playing special teams,” said Ogunbowale, who covered punts and kickoffs and helped on the punt-return team his first two seasons in Mad City.
With Clement back as the primary bell cow in 2016, Ogunbowale volunteered as a senior to go back to his roots, lobbying special teams coach Chris Haering for time on the kick-return and punt-return units again. For one, he figured it a chance to help tutor some of the younger pups getting the same work he did as a freshman and sophomore. For another, in the back of his mind, it was something else, something positive, to get on tape for the pro scouts.
“That was really more in the front of my mind,” Ogunbowale said. “I know how important it’s going to be for me. So that was kind of the (reason) behind me talking to coach Haering and have him put me on more special teams — just so, like I said, I can build that film résumé.”
When White was a senior in 2013, Ogunbowale was a redshirt freshman, a walk-on defensive back, a scout-team guy trying to match the starters step for step.
“I had to do a lot of individual drills with him to get looks,” the younger Badgers tailback said of his predecessor. “We would just have a good time in practice and in the locker room away from football, so that’s kind of how it all started. And we got closer after he left.”
The fraternity of Badgers ball carriers remains tight, so much so that Ogunbowale was on a group text with ex-teammates such as Gordon, John Clay and Montee Ball that Super Bowl Sunday night, commenting on White’s history-making performance in real time.
“I’m sure he was just being pulled in every direction after that game,” Ogunbowale said. “He finally texted us the next morning, just knowing how surreal of a feeling that was for him. And for him to be able to do what he did … just seeing a guy I look up to as a big brother and having the success that he had on the biggest stage of his career, the biggest moment, that was really exciting to see. I was just really proud.”