Senior running back returns for Rutgers
It's a comeback, nearly one year in the making.
Three hundred fifty days ago, senior running back Paul James had already tallied 96 rushing yards and a touchdown as he carried the ball into the teeth of the Navy defense — and then everyone held their breath.
A Midshipman’s helmet struck James in his right knee, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and ending his season.
But after 11 months of grueling rehab, the Glassboro, New Jersey, native is back for the Rutgers football team, with the Scarlet Knights' opener Saturday marking the return of one of the most highly-touted backs in the history of High Point Solutions Stadium.
“I feel great,” James told The Targum. “I feel like I’m back.”
There may have been no one more devastated by James’ injury than head coach Kyle Flood.
Entering his fourth season in Piscataway, Flood cultivated his senior running back’s skillset, sharpening his tools with insight, technique and support.
When James fractured his fibula in his sophomore season, Flood was right there to reassure the tailback he would regain his health to be back on the field the following season.
Three weeks into that season, disaster struck.
But now, Flood is feeling a little better about his backfield with James in the mix.
“I feel better when I see Paul James on the practice field,” Flood said. “When I see him on game day, my level of excitement even rises further.”
Flood has reason to be excited after James torched opposing defenses for 363 rushing yards last season, to go with seven total touchdowns (five rushing) on 5.8 yards per carry in four games.
James could barely contain himself Tuesday after Flood’s weekly press conference.
“I’m really excited,” James said. “Just every day that goes by, getting closer and closer to the game, it’s building and building. Being away from the field for so long and just not being able to be with the team was hard.”
But the 6-foot, 220-pounder is not the only talented tailback for Rutgers in 2015. When the veteran James went down last season, the younger backs stepped up.
Sophomores Robert Martin (434) and Josh Hicks (440), along with juniors Desmon Peoples (447) and Justin Goodwin (328) combined to rush for 1,649 yards on the ground last fall.
As the Knights take on the Spartans, they boast the most potent backfield on the banks since Ray Rice’s magical 2006 season.
Rutgers stable of backs — absent Peoples, who is out this week due to an upper body injury — has continued to compete through the spring and summer camps. That leaves Flood in a precarious position to decide how to distribute the carries.
“I would imagine Paul James would go out there for the first play, so that will make him the starter on paper,” Flood said. “I know everybody gets excited about that. But I don't see it that way. I believe Josh Hicks is the starter, Robert Martin is a starter, Justin Goodwin is a starter. We are very fortunate, the four running backs we have available right now have all won football games for us and been impactful for our program.”
Hicks, who rushed for 202 yards in his last game en route to earning Quick Lane Bowl MVP, threw down the gauntlet in August, challenging his teammates to beat him for the starting job.
“Everybody wants to be the guy, everybody wants to start," Hicks said. "If you wanna start like that, you have to work for it, right? I’m a competitor. I love to compete. And may the best man win."
Saturday against Norfolk State, Rutgers will start Hayden Rettig at quarterback. When the sophomore makes his collegiate debut, the Knights will need to count on the running game to protect the inexperienced signal-caller.
“It’s really important,” James said of the impact the rushing attack could have on the performance of the quarterback. “Especially in the Big Ten, it’s a run-heavy conference, so it’s really important for the running backs to carry the team and be able to get those tough yards that we need to be able to advance the ball. (That) will make it easier, it’ll take give the quarterback a little relief. They know they have running backs that are able to pick up them yards, really put the ball on the ground and be able to run it.”
The competition in the backfield seems like the perfect storm for Rutgers, whether it’s Rettig or suspended quarterback Chris Laviano who ultimately hold the reins of the offense.
And for James, he doesn’t mind if the Knights have a few extra irons in the fire.
“It was just motivation to get back and be the best I could be,” he 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. We try to make each other better.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @kevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.