Receiver Chris James Ready To Make Impact

The Fighting Illini football team expected big things from receiver Chris James last year, but a knee injury in Camp Rantoul forced him to miss the entire season. James is fully recovered now and is making his presence felt on the practice field.

"Chris is a guy that has a really high football IQ," compliments Coach Ron Zook. "He understands the passing game concepts of being an outside receiver and inside receiver. He didn't lose a beat in terms of the mental part, it's just getting him back and knocking the rust off of him."

The rust is coming off slowly but surely, and CJ demonstrated his value to the team with a 20 yard touchdown reception in the scrimmage last Saturday. Paydirt always feels especially good to someone who has been away from the game for awhile.

"Yeah, it was good to get that monkey off my back. A lane opened up between the corner and the safety. It came at a time I was starting to get sore. Practice was starting to get to me a little bit. But I'm cool. I'll be ready to get back into it again."

James made an amazingly quick recovery from a complicated surgery to his left knee.

"Yeah, I thank our trainers Nick Richey and Byron Cunningham. They brought me back real fast. We were moving at a rapid pace, and it felt good to come back and practice during Rose Bowl week. To warm up in the Rose Bowl with the rest of the guys, it felt good. But during the season, it was a hard time to go through. I've got about 97% of my speed back now. By May and June, I should be perfect."

Chris sometimes appears to favor his knee if he must make quick cuts on his pass routes, but he is unconcerned.

"Sometimes, toward the end of practice it gets sore. But at the beginning of practice, when I warm up I feel good, like I'm the same receiver as my freshman year. I just have to keep going at it every day and I'll get better and better."

Surprisingly, it isn't the surgically repaired knee that is causing his problem.

"The leg I'm favoring is not even my ACL leg. They took a patella tendon from my right leg and put it in my left leg, so my tendon is still growing back. I got tendonitis before it fully grew back, so that's what's bothering me right now. My left leg is perfectly stable. I have no problems with it at all.

The 6'-0", 188 pound Chicago Morgan Park graduate, who caught 5 passes for 76 yards as a true freshman two years ago, lived vicariously through his roommate and friend Juice Williams during his enforced absence.

"I told Juice he was a representation of me, and everything he did on the field was like I was doing it too. That's my buddy, and that's my best friend. I was proud of him, real proud of him."

CJ was a slot receiver his first year, but Arrelious Benn's presence there caused the coaches to move him to an outside position. He describes the differences in the two positions.

"When you run inside receiver, there's not many long routes. Outside receivers have a lot of long routes, and a lot of attention to detail. Inside receivers requires blocking a lot bigger guys. It's easy because they don't try to dish and dodge you, but you've got to hold up those guys coming full tilt.

"The corners (on the outside) like to dance around. So you have to get used to dancing and shifting around. If you don't block, you're not going to play. That's a big part of our offense and a big reason why we were second in the nation in rushing. Perimeter blocking and downfield blocking is going to help us get big plays."

The passing attack in previous years hasn't always provided many opportunities for outside receivers to catch passes. James understands why but believes things will change this season.

"I just think it was because the running game was going so well. When you stick to one thing, you just keep milking that cow until it's dry. So now I think we're developing the passing game more, and I think it's going to be a pivotal weapon for us this year.

"If we do what we're supposed to do and time our routes properly, we should get open. The scheme Coach Locksley has set up for us is perfect. If you do your job, you should get open and get the ball."

Coach Zook is effusive in his praise and looks forward to having Chris James healthy again.

"Chris is going to be a guy that helps us. He knows what's going on, he knows the offense. He's a football player and a great team guy. He's not a burner, so to speak. But I don't think you have to be a burner to be a good receiver. He's gonna get open, he's gonna run good routes, catch the ball and make things happen."

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