Walk-on emerges in career-rushing year
Right before then-sophomore running back P.J. James’ first game on scholarship for the Rutgers football team, he imagined greatness.
With 182 rushing yards in the Aug. 29 season opener against Fresno State, including two runs for 50-plus yards, imagination became reality.
The walk-on validated head coach Kyle Flood’s decision to start him for the rest of the season, when healthy, over then-junior Savon Huggins.
The Daily Targum’s Most Improved Player of the Year led the nation in rushing after three games with 493 yards. He ended the season with a team-leading 881 in nine games.
It never visibly blew James away, but he maintained a Christmas morning smile throughout his accomplishments.
“It was kind of surreal, but I try to envision everything before I get to the season,” James said. “I try to envision greatness before because if you can envision it, you can try to reach it.”
With such a year, it was only fair that the Scarlet Knights pay for his education. The team put James on scholarship last summer after a 2012 season when he only rushed five times.
James was a preferred walk-on in 2011, meaning Rutgers recruited him like any other player but offered him no scholarship.
A high ankle sprain suffered his senior year at Glassboro (N.J.) High School and reputably weak competition hurt his chances of landing a scholarship.
Despite missing a few games and parts of other games with the injury, James recorded 1,182 rushing yards. His junior season with 1,730 rushing yards stood more impressive, but the senior James led his team to a Group I state championship.
To continually prove himself, he works harder than anyone on the team in the weight room, said junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo.
“Since he was a walk-on, he had to work harder than most guys to earn himself a scholarship,” Carroo said. “You have to take it as he was a walk-on, he earned a scholarship and at one point he was the leading rusher in the country.”
The best run defense Rutgers faced in the first four games of last season was Fresno State, which allowed 148.2 rushing yards per game last year.
But fundamentally, there was little James couldn’t do.
“It’s no surprise that P.J. led the nation in rushing,” said senior fullback Michael Burton, who was also a preferred walk-on. “He’s an exceptional back. He can run, block, catch. He can do everything.”
James quickly anticipated defenders to get around them, he powered through tackles to get more yards and some of his stiff arms might as well have been force fields.
Then a leg injury suffered Sept. 21 against Arkansas terminated his surreal string of performances. After missing much of 2013 spring practice because of injury, James sat out another four games.
He averaged at least 4 yards per rush in four of his five games after returning but rarely appeared as electric. He even departed Nov. 30 against Connecticut with a lower right leg injury.
James still maintained his smile, even when talking to reporters Sept. 27 in the Hale Center about rehabbing.
His goal is to stay completely healthy next season. After only performing noncontact drills during the spring because of a shoulder injury, that is far from a guarantee.
But James always set high expectations, even when he had to earn his playing time and scholarship.
“There were times that always slipped into my mind: ‘What if the opportunity never comes?’” James said. “But you’ve got to stay positive. If you get negative thoughts, they’ll kill you.”