Rutgers running back plans to play every game
It has been six years since he has played a full season.
An ankle sprain forced him to miss a couple contests his senior year at Glassboro High School in southern New Jersey and since arriving in Piscataway, Paul James has been plagued by injuries his entire college career.
A broken leg and torn knee ligaments to go with other sprains and strains have marred what could have been the most productive career for any running back ever to play for the Rutgers football team.
But James, now a fifth-year senior, has put everyone on notice — he’s back.
“I feel great,” James said after day two of training camp. “My body feels great, everything feels great. I feel like I’m back.”
Whether it's his powerful bursts through the line of scrimmage or his sharp, shifty cutting, he definitely looks like he is back.
The Glassboro, New Jersey, native powered past opponents for 363 yards leading up to James' most recent stumble, coming in the Scarlet Knights’ 34-21 victory over Navy last September.
As the 6-foot, 215-pounder began to fall to the ground, his right knee was speared by a Midshipmen’s helmet, tearing James' anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and cutting his season short for the second straight year.
But the kid teammates call "PJ" was encouraged throughout his rehab, knowing he would have one more shot to answer the what ifs.
“It’s my last year on the banks, so I’m ready to go out there and play every game this season,” James said.
He stressed the importance of the first contact and first game as the true barometers of his progression in rehabbing his right knee.
“The first hit is always a good thing, it lets you know, kinda just clears your mind sometimes after that first hit," he said. "... When I’ll really know is when I step on the field the first game, you know, that’s when it comes down to the line — you just go out there and play, and I’ll clear my mind and really know.”
On Monday, head coach Kyle flood couldn’t help contain his excitement to see James back on the field.
“It makes me feel good,” Flood said of his most experienced back on Monday. “It was great to see him out there in indi (individual drills) and I thought he ran around well. I got some questions about what he would be like and I didn’t see any tenderness whatsoever. I thought he looked great out there.”
While James rehabbed, Josh Hicks and Robert Martin emerged.
The pair combined for 302 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Rutgers' 41-20 drubbing of North Carolina in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Hicks, who ripped off 202 of those yards with one score on 19 carries, earned MVP honors.
Junior running back Justin Goodwin also assisted in filling the void left by James rushing for 328 yards after beginning the season on the other side of the ball at cornerback.
“More than anything, I’m just excited to be back out here to compete with these guys.” Goodwin said.
In the spring, the progress continued. It motivated James, always watching, to push even harder to return.
“It was just motivation to get back and be the best I could be,” James said. “We have great running backs across the board in that room and it’s something we really strive for, we compete with each other. We’re all friends within the room but we also — when it comes to the field — we’re competing.”
Flood agrees that the competition in backfield is fun to watch.
“Yeah, I see it as a good thing,” Flood told reporters on Monday. “I think it’s a more a function of depth than anything, so it’s exciting. … It was exciting for me to look at that depth chart, see how many guys are competing at those positions because it makes me feel like we’re gonna have a lot of contributors.”
In the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, high-performance running backs are an abundance.
Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, a former teammate of James' at Glassboro High, is poised to build on an impressive sophomore season where he rushed for 949 yards behind Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon.
Over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes rode Ezekiel Elliot all the way to a National Championship. Elliot ran for 1,878 yards with 18 touchdowns in 2014 and has been pinned as the front-runner for this season’s Heisman Trophy.
But according to James, collectively, the best ball-carriers in the conference reside on the banks.
“I definitely think we have the best backfield (in the Big Ten),” he said. “The depth we have and the great talent within that depth, I think we have the strongest running back corps in the conference.”
The problems posed by elite offenses of the Big Ten were not going to be solved in the first two days of the Rutgers' training camp, but fifth-year senior Djwany Mera believes in the process this time of year.
“The first two days of camp just kind of shows us the type of team we have. Getting the plays down is very important, that’s why we have the meeting time,” the defensive end said.
Mera, who turns 25 later this month, acknowledged he needs to embrace more of a leadership role this season.
“If I am lacking in practice one day (the younger players) see that and automatically assume it’s alright," he said. "So, I gotta come out here and give 100 percent all the time and they just feed off of that.”
The Knights yielded nearly 2,800 rushing yards to opponents in 2014, while the Ohio State’s and MIchigan State’s of the conference have only gotten better entering the fall.
Rutgers' defensive line has been strengthened by the emergence of pass-rushng sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay and the steady play of fifth-year senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton.
But for the first week of training camp, it’s all about the grind — and Mera stressed he is finding a balance between leading both verbally and by example.
“The type of leader I am, I just sit back, I do what I gotta do. I go hard and the rest of the guys feed off of that,” he said. “Now I feel I have to be more vocal and just bring the energy.”
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