University of Tennessee Volunteers
North Gwinnett High School
The success of the Tennessee program in 2013 could be tied to the development of their offensive line, which features four returning starters and a quartet of senior prospects. The unquestioned leader of the Tennessee front wall is their mainstay at the right tackle position — Ja'Wuan Amir James, who has manned that position for every game that he has suited up for the city of Knoxville's favorite gridiron team.
One of the top programs in college football during the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-2008), Tennessee compiled a 152-52-1 record for their former coach, finishing first in the Southeastern Conference five times while placing second in eight other seasons, in addition to winning the national championship in 1998. Since Fulmer's dismissal, the team has undergone three coaching changes and produced a losing record in four of their previous five campaigns.
While James has been a part of a squad that compiled 5-7 records in each of his four seasons, first-year head coach Butch Jones helped refine the blocking technique of James and Antonio Richardson to give the Vols one of the best bookend tackle tandems in college football last season.
Since the inception of the NFL Draft in 1936, Tennessee has had 43 of its players selected in the first round, including 19 under Fulmer's "watch." Just three Vols have heard their name called in the opening round since the former coach left the school.
Among those 43 selections, only five Tennessee offensive linemen were chosen (not including Steve DeLong, who was taken in the 1965 American Football League Draft by the San Diego Chargers as a guard, but played on the defensive line during his pro career).
Among those five blockers, the first Tennessee offensive tackle to be selected was Dick Evey, the 14th pick by Chicago in 1964. Centers Bob Johnson (Cincinnati, 1968) and Robert Shaw (Dallas, 1979) followed. In 1991, the Volunteers' bookend tackles, Charles McRae (seventh pick by Tampa Bay) and Antone Davis (eighth choice by Green Bay) were back-to-back selections on draft day.
Most experts regard McRae and Davis as one of the best offensive tackle tandems in the history of college football. With the team's hopes for returning to dominance in the future, it was perhaps fitting that those aspirations were closely tied to the success of the unit's present starters up front, Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, on the left side, and James boasting a string of 49 consecutive starting assignments on the right side.
The starting streak is impressive at any position, but particularly on the offensive line. If Tennessee would have qualified for a bowl game in 2013, James would have become the first Volunteers lineman to start 50 games for the university. Only one position player, defensive back Jonathan Hefney, has ever accomplished that feat. Hefney shares the consecutive starts record with kicker Jeff Hall at 50.
While most fans recognize the left tackle position as the "glamour" spot on the offensive line, it has been James' emergence at right tackle that was directly linked to the revival of the Volunteers' running game since it fell to the depths of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in 2011, when Tennessee finished 116th among 120 FBS teams with an average of 90.08 yards per game on the ground that season.
While Volunteers ball carriers found the end zone just 11 times in 2011, James was credited with a touchdown-resulting block on each of those scoring scampers, finishing his sophomore campaign with seven more touchdown-resulting blocks for the team's aerial attack, that posted 18 scores for that campaign.
Tennessee recorded its third consecutive losing season in 2012, but one of the few "bright spots" was the stellar performance of James in the trenches. Recognized as the best run blocker in the prestigious Southeastern Conference, the Vols utilized their right tackle's dominance to direct the bulk of their running plays to that side of the field.
Because of the team's reliance on James' ability to widen rush lanes and get into the second level, they improved their game average from 90.08 yards on the ground in 2011 to 160.33 yards per game in 2012. The team found the end zone 18 times running the pigskin, with James recording 14 touchdown-resulting blocks. They accounted for a total of 1,924 rushing yards, generating 1,284 yards over the right side of the line.
New head coach Butch Jones was quick to recognize the success the Volunteers had with James leading the way up front. With both James and Richardson leading the way, the Vols became more reliant on their rushing attack while trying to establish a passing attack minus Tyler Bray, who left after the 2012 season in a quest to play in the NFL.
Throughout the season, James cleared out the rush lanes, delivering seven touchdown-resulting blocks as the Vols scored 18 times on the ground. Close to 60% of their rushing yardage (1,334 of 2,261) came over the right side of the Tennessee line led by their senior tackle.
James was the "prize" of the Tennessee 2010 recruiting class, as the Vols worked hard to convince the Atlanta, Georgia native to "make the trip up I-75" to play for the university.
Prior to his arrival, he was regarded as one of the best blockers in the prep ranks, earning four-star prospect status from Scout.com during his senior season at North Gwinnett High School.
As a 6:04, 240-pound sophomore, James helped Bulldogs head coach Bob Sphire compile a 13-3 overall record and a 7-1 mark in the Class 5A Region to rank fifth in the state for the 2007 campaign. Hard work in the training room during the off-season saw the offensive tackle grow to 6:06, 280 as a junior, guiding the team to a 10-3 record while finishing as the state's 11th-ranked unit.
As a senior, James continued to develop physically, averaging 12 knockdown blocks per game as a 6:06, 305-pound blocker for a 12-1 team that placed sixth in the state and captured the Region 7-5A championship to advance to the state quarter-finals in 2009.
Scout.com regarded him as the sixth-best tackle in the prep ranks, while ESPN named him the nation's second-best tackle and ranked him 24th on the ESPN150 squad.
The Atlanta native added Class AAAA All-State accolades from the Georgia Sportswriters Association and was a member of Prep Star's "Top 150" Dream Team that year. Recruiting service "247Sports" called James the best prospect in the state and second-best offensive tackle in the country while awarding him as a five-star prospect. He would conclude his high school gridiron career by playing in the Under Armour All-America Game.
James was coveted by most of the South's major college programs. Prior to his final season at North Gwinnett High, he had turned down scholarship offers from Auburn, Central Florida, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, Maryland, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech when he committed to attend the University of Alabama in May, 2009.
The offensive lineman later de-committed from Alabama in September of his senior season. One month later, he made an official visit to Tennessee, where he was greatly impressed by the new staff headed by Lane Kiffin. In November, he informed then Vols recruiter, Ed Orgeron that he had decided to join the Tennessee program. He would graduate early from high school, enrolling at the university in January, 2010.
James would participate in spring practice and the offseason conditioning program. Before his first week on campus had passed, the head coach that had recruited and signed him was abruptly gone. While that event that would shake the psyche of many young players, it only served to motivate James.
His hard work and determination was rewarded as the 2010 season opened. When the Volunteers took the field for the opener vs. Tennessee-Martin, 12 true freshmen saw action, but just one started. James took his spot at right tackle, and has lined up there for the first snap in every game since.
"I've really been blessed," James said of his longevity at the position. "God gave me the opportunity and kept me healthy for all of these games. It helps me experience-wise, makes me wiser having learned from games from my freshman, sophomore and junior years."
For five of those 2010 starts, and nearly every game since, James has lined up next to fellow senior Zach Fulton, who claimed a starting job late in his freshman season and has held it for all but one game over his career, missing only the 2012 South Carolina game with an ankle injury.
"It definitely helps a lot playing next to Zach," James said of his partner on the right side of the offensive line. "I know his tendencies and he knows mine. We know each other; we know we're going to make the right calls. It gives us a different level of confidence."
That 2010 offensive line featured three freshmen, but James was one of just four players on that squad's roster to see action in every quarter of every game. He would go on to earn Freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors (from the league's coaches), as the right tackle was part of a team that earned a Music City Bowl berth, despite finishing the year with a 6-7 record during the first season under coach Derek Dooley.
The offense struggled in 2011, recording a 5-7 record, missing the post-season for just the third time since the 1984 campaign. The Vols finished 104th in the nation in total offense (332.67 ypg) and 106th in scoring offense (20.23 ppg), in addition to seeing its ground attack stalled (90.08 ypg).
But, with James in the trenches, the front wall, which gave up 41 sacks for losses of 289 yards the previous schedule (115th nationally), greatly improved, as they were charged with 18 sacks in 2011 (40th in the FBS). The right tackle registered 67 knockdowns with 11 touchdown-resulting blocks for the running game, adding seven more for the aerial attack. He allowed just one sack and four quarterback pressures, leading the front wall with a blocking consistency grade of 84.33%.
Named to the All-American "Super Sleeper" Team (consists of the most underrated player at each position) in 2012 by The NFL Draft Report, James quietly put together a superb junior campaign, despite the Vols again missing the post-season after producing another 5-7 schedule. He would lead the nation's right tackles with an 89.83% grade for blocking consistency, delivering 108 knockdowns, an average of nine per game.
Even with their losing record, James' dominance in the trenches was evident, as the offense rallied behind the junior to average 160.33 yards per game rushing, along with ranking 18th in the nation in total offense (475.92 ypg) and 15th in passing offense (315.58 ypg). James paced a blocking unit that led the Southeastern Conference and placed fifth in the nation for fewest quarterback sacks allowed (0.67 pg). He not only recorded touch-down-resulting blocks on 14-of-18 running scores, but also made key blocks on 10 of the team's aerial touchdowns.
James had an opportunity to leave for the National Football League following his junior season, but returning to the Volunteers was just what he needed, both on the field and off.
"I wasn't ready to leave physically or mentally," said the team's senior captain.
"I felt like I had a lot to build on strength-wise and growing up-wise. It definitely helps that all of us stayed together as an offensive line." His consistency on the field is a reflection of the coaching James has received throughout his career at Tennessee. Head coach Butch Jones and his staff raised that bar considerably when they stepped in the door.
"They brought a lot of consistency in their message," James said of the impact Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney have made on him. "They preach effort and working hard. A lot of coaches say it, but they live it every day. I feel like this coaching staff definitely has me playing a lot harder."
Throughout the 2013 schedule, James was as dominant as ever. His blocking consistency grade of 87.3% was third-best for any offensive tackle in the Southeastern Conference this season. The Vols recorded a total of 30 touchdowns on offense (18 rushing, 12 passing), with the right tackle producing 13 TD-resulting blocks. He also posted 89 knockdown blocks while defenders lining up over the senior have managed to registered just two of the 15 sacks given up by the front wall.
James has started each of the 49 games he appeared in since arriving on campus as a freshman…Since the start of his sophomore season (36 contests), the right offensive tackle has recorded 264 knockdowns/key blocks (7.33 kd/pg), delivering 35 touchdown-resulting blocks for the ground game and 23 more for the passing attack (Tennessee has recorded 39 rushing touchdowns and 61 via the aerial game during that 29-game span), registered 13 of those blocks downfield, as he produced a blocking consistency average of 88.10%...During those 29 contests, opponents have been credited with just two quarterback sacks and eight pressures over the right tackle during 1,016 pass plays.