As a freshman in fall camp, Brandon James proved he deserved a role on the field for the Gators. However, he underwent a knee scope that forced him to miss the first game of the season against Southern Miss. James returned against UCF the next week, returning the opening kickoff in the second half of the game and one second half punt.
Reggie Nelson was serving as the team’s punt returner while Jemalle Cornelius and Kestahn Moore were the only two to return a kick in the first two games. James Still wanted to be the guy doing both, but those were three upperclassmen handling the jobs well.
But he started to get suspicious the following week while the team prepared for a trip to Tennessee.
“Going into and before the game that week, Urban (Meyer) kept giving me hints to be ready,” James said.
The Gators took the field that September night in Knoxville, staring 106,000 Volunteer fans in the face. And James didn’t back down. He sprinted out of the tunnel, giving the Gator chomp to the crowd and didn’t show any signs of fear. Meyer figured that would be the best time to let him know that he would be Florida’s returner that night.
The Gators got a stop late in the first quarter, and Nelson sprinted off the field with the rest of the defense. After a Nelson tap on James’ helmet, the freshman was on his own, waiting to catch the punt.
In that moment, his four years of tormenting the Volunteers got underway.
The first return went for eight yards. The second return should’ve been and 83-yard touchdown return, but Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt tripped James and didn’t draw a flag, forcing the return to be cut short after 35 yards. A block-in-the-back penalty later in the game would negate another touchdown.
In four years against Tennessee, James would total 507 yards and two punt return touchdowns.
The Volunteers weren’t alone. James ended his Florida career second in total yards gained with 4,770, second behind only Errict Rhett. He has the school record with 2,718 kickoff return yards and 1,371 punt return yards. His four punt return touchdowns tie Jacquez Green for the school record. His 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee ranks fifth in school history for longest punt return, and he totals three of the 14 longest punt returns in school history.
Name the return record, James’ name is at or near the top in school history. The field vision and elusiveness came naturally. There were holes that opened on the field and moves that he made with the ball that he sometimes struggled to explain, but it was his natural talent taking over.
“A lot of it was God given and blessed with natural hand-eye quickness,” James said. “A big reason for my success at Florida was just because of my want-to. You have to have that want-to to make plays. I wanted to take over and put my stamp on the game.
“I had a role where I could effect that game on a week-to-week basis. As a freshman with all those guys, you couldn’t ask for much more than a way to impact the game.”
James struggled to pick out a favorite return, but there’s no hesitation when thinking about his favorite games at Florida. And it’s not what most would expect. The Gators won two national titles and two SEC titles when James was on the roster, playing in three BCS bowls. But none of those are in his two favorite games.
The reason? They weren’t played in The Swamp.
“We won two titles but my favorite games and most excited, fun ones we had were two games in The Swamp,” James said.
His favorite came against Miami during week two of the 2008 season.
“The first one was when we had College Gameday in town when we played Miami,” James said. “It’s Florida-Miami for my first time since I got to school. They hyped it up and had everything leading up to it. We got Spikes and Percy back that week, so that was a real big one with The Swamp just going crazy.”
The second was about revenge. The players suffered through a painful loss at LSU in 2007 after leading throughout most of the game. They got the Tigers at home in 2008 and wanted to make a statement.
“The LSU game that same year (2008),” James said. “They beat us the year before and there was a lot of talk going on into that game. We came out and just destroyed them in The Swamp.
“The two title games, of course they were sweet, but those two being in The Swamp with all the rivalries and everything going on. Those are a little more vivid in my memory and a little sweeter.”
James is now in between high school coaching jobs. He served as the head coach at St. Joseph Academy in 2012 but wasn’t brought back for the 2013 season. No matter where he is, James always has his eyes on the Florida program.
“I follow everything,” he said. “One of my favorite players right now is that Hargreaves at corner. He’s a stud, man. Being a freshman coming in last year and stepping right in. And of course Fred’s kid, Kelvin, at running back. I’m still close to the program. I never could get too far away.”
He has also remained close with Chris Leak, Florida’s new receivers coach. Although they only played together in 2006, James always had plenty of respect for the former Florida quarterback. They’ve spoken a few times since Leak got the job, and James is confident Leak is ready for the job.
“I’m so happy for him,” James said. “Leak is a guy that, when I came into school, he had all these accolades and the starting quarterback. You could’ve never told that by how he acted and carried himself. He treated me like I was the No. 1 pick. That’s just how he was. I’m extremely excited for him. I have no doubt that he’ll do a great job.”
James also still has faith in head coach Will Muschamp. When James got his head-coaching job two years ago, Muschamp was one of the first to reach out and congratulate him.
“I love Muschamp,” James said. “I’ve had the chance to meet him a few times. I think he’s a great coach. The year before last, we were in the Sugar Bowl and one game away from the SEC Championship game. Last year was a bump in the road, but we had a lot of injuries.
“He’s had some tough times at Florida, coming in with the coaching change and a lot of guys transferring. Those are tough things to deal with. I think it’ll all come together this year and get us back to Atlanta.”