MADISON – Whether it be a bruising run up the middle by lowering his shoulder or winning a foot race off the edge, Chris James thinks he brings an element that could make him an impact player for Wisconsin in 2017.
Not bad for someone who was told at the start of spring to try not to do too much at once.
The simplified approach from James in his first year with the starting offense has allowed the junior transfer to do a lot through Wisconsin’s 15 spring practices, which concluded Friday night in the annual spring game.
What the dynamic plays and stats don’t show is James is having fun again, something he hopes will generate to big production on the field.
“I’m extremely happy and there’s a great opportunity in front of us,” James said. “Going into this season incredibly excited. Everybody has their goals of Big Ten West and bowl champs. Just to be around that every single day, the enthusiasm is contagious.”
For a while James wondered if that joy would return. Committing out of high school to a Pittsburgh coaching staff that included head coach Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and running back coach John Settle, James became the top reserve as a true freshman, rushing for 437 yards and four touchdowns on 87 carries (5.0 avg.) in 13 games.
But once Chryst, Rudolph and Settle left for Wisconsin and Pat Narduzzi headed the program, James’ production and position on the depth chart slipped, as he failed to get in sync with a different offensive philosophy. In a word, he wasn’t happy.
“I personally thought I could have been playing a lot more,” James said. “I was away from my family and friends and wasn’t with the coaches that actually knew me.”
James only looked at Wisconsin when he requested his transfer solely based on the coaching staff, although having a familiarity with Wisconsin (the Badgers recruited him aggressively out of Notre Dame Prep Academy in Chicago) and the chance for immediately playing time following his redshirt season was a plus.
After being away from the Chryst-Rudolph-Settle playbook for a year, James was able to pick up right where he left off when he transferred back into the program in time to take part in summer conditioning.
“Everything is pretty much the same with the same terminology,” James said. “Once I heard them call a play, I was like ‘I remember that. I know what they are doing.’ It was almost like I had a little head start playbook wise. It was a matter of getting use to things.”
One of the things James had to adjust to was being a factor in the passing game. Although he said catching the ball comes natural, James was never asked to be involved in that part of the offense in high school. In two years at Pitt, James had one catch for 23 yards.
“In my eyes it’s another opportunity to get the ball in my hands,” he said. “When I see the ball, and know it’s coming to me, you better catch it because you don’t know when you’re going to get another one.”
Wisconsin averaged 203.1 yards per game last season in large part to Corey Clement, whose 314 carries was 223 more than any other player. With the experience Bradrick Shaw got last season (88 carries, 457 yards and five touchdowns) as a redshirt freshman, the Badgers are hoping James is part of a balanced one-two combo to wear down defenses.
“Me and Brad know what’s in store for the season,” James said. “We know about the opportunities ahead of us. But at the same time, we trust the plan and that’s what we’re going to do from here on out. We trust that the coaches are going to put us in positions to win, and that’s really what it comes down to.”