Mike McCarthy likes tight ends. And he loves Pittsburgh.
So perhaps the Green Bay Packers’ coach will get in the ear of general manager Ted Thompson during next week’s draft and suggest selecting Jesse James, the standout tight end from Penn State who embodies many of the qualities from McCarthy’s hometown.
“I’m from the Pittsburgh area – a small town where you have to work hard for what you get,” James said last week. “I’ve always worked hard. You can’t ever abandon that Pittsburgh mentality. I’ve always worked as hard as possible to take advantage of every opportunity I get. Throughout my whole career, that’s worked for me. It’s something I’ll stick to.”
That philosophy is so ingrained in James that he couldn’t put a finger on where it came from. He mentioned his family and neighbors, teachers and coaches.
No doubt, it started at home. His father has been a union painter since he was 18. His mother is a welfare agent. They worked hard. And they gave back. James’ father was a wrestling coach who started a youth program.
James’ early days in Glassport, Pa., therefore, were spent wrestling. Wrestlers are renowned for their work ethic and discipline. Those traits have stuck with James.
“Growing up around wrestling my whole life, you just learn discipline and the way to act, the way to work hard,” he said. “Wrestlers work as hard as anybody. Being around those kind of guys really helped me.”
That mentality is just one reason why he’ll be an asset, regardless of whether he’s drafted early in the third round, as one scout projected, or sometime in the middle of Day 3, as another scout said. Big guys that are explosive always are coveted — and James fits the bill in both regards at 6-foot-7 and 261 pounds with a 4.69 40 (pro day) and 37.5-inch vertical (Combine). But character matters, too, and coaches never tire of having nose-to-the-grindstone guys in their locker room.
“I’ve never had an ego,” James said. “It’s not part of my personality. I just go to work and get things done. There’s no reason to talk about it.”
James needed just three-and-a-half years to graduate from South Allegheny High School. He arrived on the Penn State campus in January 2012 at the ripe old age of 17. An immature kid might not have been able to handle all that was about to transpire.
Amid the Joe Paterno scandal that enveloped the school, Bill O’Brien was hired to be the head coach. There were crushing sanctions that sent established players and incoming recruits scurrying to what they deemed greener pastures. James stuck with Penn State. Two years later, O’Brien was on his way to the Houston Texans. It all worked out, though, as James worked himself into an excellent NFL prospect and the program earned a bowl game this past season.
“Yeah, it means a lot to the guys who stayed,” James said. “Everybody could have left. Being one of the people that stayed with the program through the tough times, I think we’ve earned a lot of people’s respect for being the stand-up guys for doing that for the program and helping to rebuild the program.”
His loyalty and work ethic were rewarded with six starts as a true freshman. James started all 12 games as a sophomore in 2013 and again as a junior in 2014 after James Franklin replaced O’Brien.
In three seasons, he caught 78 passes for 1,005 yards and a school-record 11 touchdowns by a tight end. At 6-foot-7, he’s an inviting target in the passing game. He’s more than that, though. With his efforts in the weight room leading the school’s strength coach to start calling him “Freak,” James recorded 81 knockdowns/key blocks and eight touchdown-producing blocks in the run game as a junior and 98 knockdowns/key blocks and eight touchdown-production blocks as a sophomore.
For as good as he is now, the upside seems incredibly high.
“Being young and being only 20 years old, I still have a lot of room to grow at a lot of things,” he said. “I haven’t reached my full potential in any area of my game yet. I’m sure I will eventually but I have a lot of room to grow as a player.”
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