Youthful James Has Bright Future

Coach Ron Zook likes to recruit top athletes who are versatile and can play multiple positions. But sometimes he isn't aware of his players' hidden talents. For instance, one defensive player was discovered doing a cartwheel during practice last week -- sophomore end Antonio James.

James celebrated defensive tackle Mike Ware's interception and touchdown return with a full cartwheel in the end zone. Such an act would draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Illini in a game, but James' act was exactly the kind of excitement defensive line coach Tom Sims likes.

"Coach wants us to show enthusiasm," explained James. "We were yelling, but people can't see when we are yelling, so we do cartwheels. Yeah, it helps us get some energy going. It helps us keep our tempo up and not think so much all the time. It helps us have fun."

Coach Sims uses a wide variety of teaching techniques to help his players improve, and he has the most enthusiastic group at practices.

"He's by far the most fun. We do a whole lot of extra stuff, and he teaches a whole lot. We do a lot of energetic drills to help keep up the tempo."

Sims occasionally utilizes practice techniques that appear unorthodox to the untrained observer. In one drill, the d-linemen get down on their knees in pairs facing each other. One player holds his hands up to his face to protect it while the second one tries to use quick hand moves to penetrate the defense to reach the first player's head.

"Working your hands," James called it. "Offensive linemen try to strike your head, and you've got to react quickly to get your hands up by your face before they get ahold of you. It helps improve our hand reflexes."

James is a sophomore from Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio. He was an Associated Press first-team Division I All-Ohio selection out of high school and was selected for the Ohio/Pennsylvania Big 33 All-Star game. He lettered last year as a freshman and sees time again this year behind Doug Pilcher, providing quality depth at an important position.

Antonio notices a big improvement in his play this year compared with last year.

"It makes a lot of difference. Coaches teach a lot of technique, and you don't get a lot of that in high school where you run around and do whatever you want. There's a lot of technique now in college, which helps my game develop a whole lot better."

Despite being listed at a robust 6'-5" and 260 pounds, James looks relatively slender and has much growth potential. He hasn't gained any weight in a year on campus, but he is much stronger and has transformed his body.

"When I came in I was a lot fatter. What happened is I'm cutting out a whole lot of fat and then putting on a whole lot of muscle. I came in at 265, but I had 16% body fat. Now, I am 260 with 10% fat. I want to be a lot bigger before I graduate."

James is a product of a true football factory at Massillon. His school has been producing top players for many years, with a number making it to the NFL. He has a teammate on the Illini campus in the person of freshman receiver Brian Gamble.

"He's doing very good as a freshman coming in straight out of high school. He's doing a good job and contributing. Yes, there's a whole lot of players (at Massillon), some are D-1 players and some are D-2. It's not very big at all really...45-50,000 people. We're born to play football I guess, as we've been playing since we were little."

James and his Illini teammates are tired of losing, but he and his mates are still able to get fired up for their next opponent even after a difficult loss like the one to Missouri.

"Playing good opponents each week is tough, but you look forward to playing against a new team. They have athletes and plays you've never seen before. And I think the excitement of showing everybody what you've accomplished from the year before is worthwhile. We're a changing program, and we're going to show everybody. So it is easy to get up for the next opponent.

"Yes (it's easier to prepare after a victory), but we still have to critique on the little things. Maybe your first step needs to be faster, maybe you're not turning your heels fast enough. There's a whole lot to improve on since we are not a perfect team yet."

Antonio James is a History major right now but plans to study Community Health. He has three seasons ahead of him, and he plans to make the most of them. He speaks for the whole team when he says they are ready for the challenges ahead.

"We're more than ready. We played a real good Missouri team, and they have one of the best offenses in the nation. We saw that we can play with them."

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