By the time Charles White leaves Southern California, he will be right up there with O.J. Simpson, Ricky Bell, Mike Garrett and Anthony Davis in the record book.

White's name probably will be the one at the top.

He doesn't have the charisma of Simpson, the strength of Bell, the shiftiness of Garrett or the distinctive high knee action and the cockiness of Davis, but barring injury, White will end this season as the greatest tailback in USC history - in terms of yards gained - and he is only a junior. He also has a chance to become the all-time leading rusher in college football.

That is a long way to come for a kid who, when he first started playing football at 7, wanted to fight every time he got tackled.

"It took me quite a while to get over the idea that when someone tackles you, you shouldn't swing at him," White said.

White's biggest day as a Trojan came last Saturday in Birmingham, Ala., where he gained 199 yards in 29 carries and scored a touchdown on a 40-yard run as the young Trojans upset No. 1-ranked Alabama, 24-14.

After only three games this season, White has gained 528 yards on 92 carries for a 5.7 average. He also is averaging 176 yards a game and has scored four touchdowns.

White came into the season with 2,336 yards, putting him fifth on the all-time USC list behind Davis, Bell, Simpson and Garrett, in that order. His 5.3 yards per carry is the best, however.

After his blazing start, which began with 156 yards against Texas Tech and 173 against Oregon before the explosion against Alabama, White needs to average 96 yards a game the rest of the season to surpass Davis' record of 3,724.

The NCAA rushing record is 6,082 yards by Pitt's Tony Dorsett, now a Dallas Cowboy.

Assuming the Trojans go to a bowl game both this year and next, White will have to average 154 yards a game to surpass Dorsett.

USC tailbacks have been in the limelight ever since John McKay switched to that formation in the early 1960s. The philosophy of the tailback-oriented offense at Southern Cal has not changed over the years, even after McKay left three years ago. The Trojans take their best and fastest athlete, stick him behind a big offensive line, a good blocking fullback and keep giving him the ball.

The thinking is that the more times your best runner has the ball, the better your chances.

At 5-feet 11, 183 pounds, White is not a muscular, overpowering runner. But he has carried the ball as many as 38 times in one game and has never missed a USC game because of injury.

At USC, the tailback lines up seven yards deep and stands with hands on knees in position to see the entire defense and how plays develop. The basic play is to pitch the ball back to him, pull two, three or four linemen and let him take off either right, left or up the middle.

White looks for the hole to open, breaks through the line, then tries to slide to the outside.

It is not as simply as it looks, White says. USC does not get into a buddle and says, "Student body left," as some have suggested. There is more sophistication than that.

"They don't just pitch the ball to me and let me run anywhere I want to," White said. "There are certain areas each man has to block in. Our line has to do a lot of reading and I have to read both them and the defense."

The Trojans have a huge offensive line.

The tackles are 6-7, 280-pound Anthony Munoz and 6-7, 280-pound Keith Van Horne. The guards are 6-5, 253-pound Brad Budde and 6-5, 225-pound Pat Howell. Keith Foote, 6-4, 240, is the center.

"We don't work on just getting in front of a guy, we try to dominate him and bury him," Munoz said. "If we just get in the way, Charlie can go, but if we destroy the guy, he can go all the way."

John Robinson, who succeeded McKay as coach, has worked extra with White and is pleased with the result.

"I think he has really developed into a great player," Robinson said. "He has done what we expect our tailback to do - make the consistent gains, but still have the strength to break a long run late in the game."

Though White prefers to run outside, he is not bashful about going inside. Against Alabama, on a third and one from the Alabama 13-yard line, White took a handoff with most of the beef on both sides heaped at the line of scrimmage. White went up and over - and landed on his feet for a seven-yard gain. Southern Cal scored on the next play.

White was a fullback in a wish-bone offense at San Fernando High School, Davis' school, and in 1975-76 White became one of only three athletes ever to be named the Southern California prep athlete of the year in two sports. White was also a hurdler, running the 330-yard intermediates in a U.S. prep record of 36 seconds.

White would much rather talk about his offensive line or USC's 3-0 mark than he would about the records he is closing in on.

"Whatever happens will happen," he said. "I can't think about it. I'm still learning how to run."

He is learning well.

In all the jubilation in the Trojan locker room following the victory in Alabama, Robinson came over to White and said, "You ran at them, remember that. You always do better when you run at them."