MADISON – A whirlwind 2015 season has finally calmed for tailback Chris James, who finally feels he’s at the place he was destined to go all along.
“I’m here and I’m home now,” James said. “I’m definitely taking advantage of being around some familiar faces. I love it here. Academically and athletically, they’ve all made the transition pretty easy for me.”
One of three transfers to join Wisconsin’s football program this year, the 5-10, 208-pound back has looked like a natural in the Badgers’ offense as fall camp extends into its second week. It shouldn’t be a surprise considering James’ history has been intertwined with Wisconsin and its current staff.
A highly-regarded four-star tailback out of Chicago, James took an official visit to Wisconsin in September 2013 and listed the Badgers as one of his top three schools. But with Taiwan Deal already committed in the class, then-running back coach Thomas Hammock wanted to add a speed back instead of another bruiser.
Supposedly wanting to commit to Wisconsin, James was passed over for running back Caleb Kinlaw. A day later James committed to Pitt, whose head coach was Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator was Joe Rudolph and running back coach was John Settle.
He was a top reserve at running back for Chryst, playing in all 13 games as a true freshman and finished with 437 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 87 carries (5.0 avg.). And then he saw Chryst, Rudolph, Settle, many other offensive staffers and strength coaches head to Wisconsin.
“All the guys I was with my freshman year, they are wearing red now,” James said.
He told Chryst he wanted to transfer, not feeling he’d like the offense being brought by former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, only to have his former head coach tell him to try and stick it out for one more season.
The year was far from a success, recording 56 carries for 253 rushing yards, but gave James plenty of perspective.
“That was the coaching staff I really wanted to be with,” James said. “When it comes to those decisions, you have to be 100 percent. You can’t be I kind of want to transfer and I kind of don’t. Anytime you are weighing those ifs, ands or buts, you shouldn’t do it. That year being there helped me really make sure that’s what I really wanted to do and that was to transfer. I’m just really glad that everything turned out in my favor and these guys still had room for me.”
James must sit out this season per N.C.A.A. transfer rules, giving him two years of eligibility beginning in 2017. It comes at a perfect time for James, as seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale will have graduated to leave a vacancy in the backfield.
“I’m glad to be around such a tremendous group,” James said. “I think the guys here work extremely hard, and that’s what I like and love to be around. When I see these guys out here working, like Corey and Dare out here working, these guys are the 1-2 punch. They are busting their butt every single day, never taking a day off. That motivates me to keep on working.”
Over the next year, James said he needs to improve in his strength, finishing his plays and his pass catching, the latter of which he attributes to not having many opportunities at Pitt. The one advantage he has is already understanding some of the concepts that have carried over.
“He’s got to approach (the year) like (Ryan) Ramczyk did, just shut his mouth, work hard, learn the offense and be the best scout team back that any team has,” Rudolph said. “If he does all those things, it’ll all come his way. I expect him to do that.”
“Every single day I’m out here working trying to get better,” James added. “I’m going to take it day by day and enjoy the process. I see this year as a year of work rather than a year off. That’s definitely what I want this to be. I have the opportunity to be behind some great backs … and I’m never too old to learn.”