James was in Charlotte, N.C., Monday night for the presentation of the Nagurski Trophy, which goes to the nation's top defensive player. Although James did not win the Nagurski—which went to Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson Monday night—he has a shot at winning the Lombardi, Bednarik and Hendricks trophies. The Lombardi and Bednarik trophies will be handed out later this week while the Hendricks trophy is given out during the final week of bowl season.
James came back from sitting out the entire 2003 season with a hip injury to record a conference -leading eight sacks and is billed to be a first-round draft choice to the NFL in April. For James, all the hard work to come back from last season's injury is paying off in dividends, and positioning the senior lineman for the hardware to go along with a bright future in the NFL.
"Good things happen when you work hard," James said. "I think during the off-season up to now, I think I've worked hard on and off the field. Good things happen when you work hard and they've been happening. I've been pretty happy with the outcome."
In preparation for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, James sat out Wisconsin's first practice Saturday due to the lingering effects of an ankle sprain suffered in the Badgers' Oct. 16 win over Purdue. He missed Sunday's workout due to his trip to Charlotte. James missed the better part of two games after the injury, and the senior did not see the field as consistently as he did prior to the sprained ankle.
Right now James is playing it by ear, rehabbing the ankle and hoping to be back to full strength when Wisconsin squares off against Georgia in Tampa, Fla.
"I've been doing all those strength exercises to get my ankle back," James said. "Whenever I'm healthy, I'll be healthy, and I think I'll be healthy when bowl time comes."
Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo understands his player is still feeling the effects of the injury, but feels his star must return to the practice field and play through the pain.
"Obviously he's still hurt, but he's got to learn how to play through injuries," Palermo said. "That's the bottom line. Hell, we got our ass beat these last two football games and he needs to start practicing and getting ready to play Georgia."
Truth be told, James did not look the same after the injury. His production level dropped as a result of the ailment and the added attention he received throughout the year. Oftentimes, the lineman was met with double and even a few triple teams to accompany a consistent amount of uncalled holding penalties.
"There's nothing you can do about it," James said of the frustrations of being limited. "You just have to go out there and play your game. If you keep playing hard, sometimes you can overcome those double teams and those holds."
Palermo, however, believes James' limited production had more to do with his injury than his status as a marked man.
"Once he hurt his ankle, he wasn't the same kid," Palermo said. "I'd tell you the same thing is true of Jonathan Welsh. When both them went down with ankle injuries in the Purdue game, neither one of them came back 100 percent."
While James is taking his time to get back to the practice field, the thought of winning a bowl for his classmates continues to drive him. Ending the regular season with two losses and watching the Rose Bowl escape his grasp, James is determined to right the ship against Georgia.
"It's extremely important, especially to our seniors," James said. "We need to show these younger guys that when the times are bad, you need to step it up and work even harder to attain your goal."
Highlighting the Outback Bowl matchup will be James' battle with Bulldogs defensive end David Pollack. A competing finalist for all of the same awards as James, the Badger lineman sees a lot of himself in Georgia's premiere playmaker.
"He's a good guy," James said of Pollack. "He's a guy who keeps his feet moving. When you go 100 percent, good things happen, and the same thing has happened in his situation."