The fact that Coach Urban Meyer and his staff are bringing in this smallish type of back to compete with all these four and five star recruits has to tell you something. Sometimes we get so caught up in combine warriors who have freakish speed to go with prototypical size that we overlook smaller guys who routinely make all the big plays.
With possibly the greatest class Florida has ever assembled ready to sign on the dotted line next Wednesday, it's easy to overlook Brandon James in this group of media-hyped prep megastars such as Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Jamar Hornsby, and Carl Johnson. The big stars have the size and stats to merit their acclaim, but James has the stats, too, even if he doesn't have the size.
James comes to the Gators from state 3A champion St. Augustine. He helped lead the Yellow Jackets to an undefeated dream season this year and made the Orlando Sentinel's All-South team. Making All-South wasn't a fluke for a kid who's still growing and whose recorded 4.5 time might be a bit deceptive.
"I'm about 5-8 now ... I've put on a little height," Brandon said. "My fastest forty time was a 4.45, and that was when I had a strained hamstring … and I still ran a 4.45."
James rushed for 1,392 yards on 146 attempts, nearly 10 yards per carry, and scored 27 touchdowns this season as the chief offensive weapon for the Yellow Jackets. Most of the time he lined up at tailback but he also lined up as a wide receiver, in the slot and as an H-back, and when the Jackets went on defense, he was playing the corner opposite his half-brother, fellow Florida commitment Jacques Rickerson. James earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous kickoff and punt returners in the state and that is where he will probably get his first shot to contribute for the Florida Gators.
He's been compared to Miami's Devin Hester, who terrified opponents as a kick returner and a utility player who could score from anywhere on the field in one electrifying play. With Vernell Brown graduating and Andre Caldwell unlikely to return to special teams after suffering his season ending broken leg back in the Tennessee game in September, the Gators need someone to step in and take the position.
"I definitely feel like I can come in there and make an immediate impact," said James. "Coach Meyer told me from day one that I'd be back there returning kicks and I'm doing what I have to do to prepare myself to come in and compete immediately."
Coach Meyer has bigger plans for someone with Brandon's talent. With the style of offense he wants to run here at UF, the possibilities are endless.
"Coach Meyer told me that they'd be using me a lot in all areas," James said. "With their system, he said they'd be using me in the slot, at the H-back position, as well as getting some carries out of the backfield."
Because he is so versatile, he has that ability to drive defensive coordinators crazy. He can do so many things that he has to be accounted for on every play and he loves the idea that Florida plans to find ways to use all his talents.
"That was the biggest reason I committed to Florida so quickly was because Coach Meyer told me I would have the opportunity to do those things," said James. "I like getting into the slot, getting some carries out of the backfield and getting some receptions as well."
Brandon received a lot of big time offers from schools like Penn State, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Iowa, and Louisville. Florida called him early in the process, but then backed off. Once the Gators got a good look at him on the field, they aggressively got back into the picture, offering him on November 16. He jumped all over it.
"I mean the opportunity to play ball there was too good to pass up." James said. "Florida all along from when they were recruiting me from the beginning … I thought they would be a good fit because of the type of offense that they were running. So when the offer came, I mean, with Jacques going there and some of the other big players … we're just going to try to win some championships."
It came as a surprise to most Gator followers when they discovered that James and Rickerson are half-brothers. They have the same father and grew up in the same St. Augustine neighborhood. Their relationship was a very important issue in their recruiting process, and both were on hand for the Florida-Florida State game, joining the influx of recruits that committed shortly after.
"The Florida State game made a huge impact on my overall decision," James said. "I was close to committing right there but I wanted to take some time and talk it over with my coaches and family before I made that decision. Going into the game, me and Jock (Jacques) talked with each other, and we both knew that we both liked Florida. During the game he told me he was ready to commit, and we talked a little over the weekend. Afterwards, I went ahead and told him I was going to get mine over with as well."
One of the biggest factors in Brandon's decision to commit was Coach Meyer. Brandon loved the fact that Coach Meyer stands for more than just football. He believes in the importance of teaching the players to grow as individuals on the football field as well as in their personal lives and in the classroom.
"One of the big things about Coach Meyer is that he tries to teach us how to live in life situations, on and off the field," James said. "I've had the opportunity to start such a great relationship with him ... that he reminds me so much of my high school coach."
Obviously, since Brandon committed back in November there has been a storm of commitments to the Gators, possibly making this Florida's greatest class ever. Brandon recognized the fact that Coach Meyer and his staff were trying to start something big but he had no idea of the magnitude in which they were going to do it. He's honored to be apart of such an amazing class.
"I mean, I realized it was going to be like this," said James. "I knew that Coach Meyer and them were gonna bring in a solid class but I had no idea of the type of players they were going to bring in with guys like Percy (Harvin) and (Tim) Tebow, and all these guys."
So which big name recruit is James looking most forward to playing with when he gets to UF? Tim Tebow? Percy Harvin? Any of the highly-touted five star prospects from the Army All-American game? Well, sort of.
"All the offensive lineman...the big guys up front …big Carl Johnson," said James. "Without a doubt, those guys up front are so important .... having a solid offensive line is so important to the offense all together and it's critical for me to be successful and get plenty of rushing yards."
Once his commitment was firm, Brandon said a lot of the other schools backed off and wished him luck.
"Tennessee and Wake Forest still continued kind of hard after I committed, but for the most part, coaches were just like 'well good luck with your career' and they backed off a lot," he said. "Nobody was doing any negative recruiting at all."
Iowa was in the hunt for James early on in his recruitment process, and after his commitment to Florida, it made for an interesting Outback Bowl. The win for the Gators made the recruit feel even better about his decision to Florida.
"Iowa was up there and in it for a while, but I really stopped considering them because of the trip," he said. "I mean it was just really far away from home. It was just really fun watching two schools that recruited me in the Outback Bowl."
So what can Gator fans expect from Brandon James? If you go by what you see on the field and combine that with his polite demeanor, then this will be a young man who contributes both on and off the field. He's a "yes sir" and "no sir" type of kid, always well mannered and friendly. On the field, he proves that it's not just the big guys who can play the game. He is one of the fiercest competitors you will find anywhere.
"I guess the one thing Gator Nation doesn't know about Brandon James is that they're getting more than what they're expecting," he said. "They may see some of my highlights or whatever but they don't know all the hard work I put into and how much effort I put into being a good football player."
Brandon James has a unique opportunity to be a contributor in so many areas for the Florida Gators the next four years. He has the speed and moves to be a terror in the open field and that Warrick Dunn-like toughness that enables him to run between the tackles despite his lack of size. As a kick returner, he will be depended upon to help the Gators win the field position battle that is so much a part of Coach Meyer's plan to win.
Don't get caught up in the star ratings or the lack of size. He has the heart and talent to prove that high school ratings and prototypical size aren't necessary to be a success with the Florida Gators.