Chris James, known affectionately as CJ to his teammates and coaches, is a slot receiver for the Fighting Illini football team. A graduate of Morgan Park high school in Chicago, CJ played in eleven games as a rookie this last fall, and he started the last four. Overall, he caught five passes for 76 yards, a 15.2 yard average.
Chris was a consensus All-Stater and considered the fourth best recruit from Illinois his senior year of high school. ESPN.com listed CJ as the 127th best recruit in the nation. He is enjoying college, but it took some adjustments for him to get used to the college game.
"College has been an exciting experience for me," he said. "All the new guys on the team, I mean I love my teammates. So my experience this first year has been great.
"It was kind of rough at the beginning, but you get used to the schedule and the day to day things. The coaches said it would never be easy, but I got adjusted real well.
"Things move so fast on the field you don't have time to think. By the end of the season I was kind of used to it. So I was just playing then. I understood by then what I could do and what I wanted to accomplish on the field. I now feel real confident in my routes and blocking because I understand what the coaches want me to do."
The Chicago Public League used to produce few college football players of note. Equipment, coaching and facilities were lacking, with most emphasis being placed on basketball. However, the CPL has seen significant improvements in football in recent years, and CJ has a good idea why this is happening.
"I attribute that to the growth of the grammar school program as well as the systems and services now in place to bring us along," he said. "There's a system to help the players bring out their talent. There has always been talent in the Public League, but now they are getting a better chance to learn the game. I played one year in grammar school before going to Morgan Park, so that was an advantage. I really learned the fundamentals of football. That's really helped those guys out a lot.
"Athletes now see that football is opening a lot of doors. You can come here and get the college experience just like I did. You just have to come out to play and learn."
CJ has a strong throwing arm. In fact, he quarterbacked Morgan Park to the Chicago Prep Bowl championship after an injury forced his All-American teammate Demetrius Jones to play wide receiver. Does he envision getting a chance to try an option pass at Illinois?
"Hopefully I can get in there (for the option pass)," he said. "Me and DaJuan Warren, he was a high school quarterback as well. So maybe if I can beat out DaJuan I can get in there."
When asked what he thinks is the biggest improvement in attitude with the team since last year, CJ responded thoughtfully.
"I think the one word that best describes this team is that everybody believes now," he said. "Coach Zook has been preaching for a long time that we've gotta believe so we just have to believe in the coaches and believe in the system they're bringing in here."
The Illini receiving corps has struggled at times with dropped balls. Since Chris James is known for his ability to make difficult catches, we asked him if he had an idea why he and his teammates have been inconsistent catching the ball.
"I really don't know what causes the drops. Sometimes we don't follow the fundamentals of catching the ball. I know one time today I took my eye off the ball because I was worried about what would happen after the catch and not watching the ball all the way into me hands. But I really don't understand why we have so many drops. As a receiver, the first thing you do is learn how to catch the ball."
Kurt Beathard is the Illini's new wide receivers coach, but CJ has not interacted with him much yet this spring.
"I play inside receiver, so Coach (Jim) Pry is my coach. Coach Beathard is cool, and he sometimes helps out when we need it. Me and Coach Pry get along real well. I really like Coach Pry, and I hope he will be here all the years I'm here. Coach Pry and Coach Beathard both very smart and help us out a lot."
Each year, Coach Zook has stated publicly he needed to recruit more receivers. The spread offense requires many receivers to run well, so CJ and the other receivers on campus have to help recruit players who may someday replace them in the lineup. Is it easy to recruit your own competition?
"It's all for the betterment of the team. With Regis Benn coming, he's a great playmaker and hopefully, with guys like that, I just want to win. It doesn't matter whether I am catching the ball or someone else is catching and I'm blocking, I just want to win."
Chris James is a Speech Communications major. He appears qualified for this major based on his excellent communication skills. While he doesn't yet know what he wants to do with his degree, there will likely be many opportunities for this impressive young man.
We thank CJ for his time and are convinced he will be a tremendous asset to the Illini over the next three years.