Tennessee can use statistical evidence to back up an impressive start for Ja’Wuan James and point to just one penalty in three starts.
The Vols could focus on things that can’t be quantified, like the steady demeanor and presence in the huddle that’s not exactly common in true freshmen.
But heading into his fourth start with James at right tackle in front of him on Saturday against UAB (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.), UT quarterback Matt Simms prefers a far simpler method to measure the early impact James is making.
“I’ve been very impressed, because from what I see, his guy isn’t hitting me very much,” Simms said. “That’s kind of how I judge it.
“But, hey, you’ve got to look at our offensive production. I don’t think he’s let up any sacks at all really, and we’ve been running the ball effectively to his side. For a young kid like that to go out there and play as well as he has, it’s impressive. I’m just happy that he’s got so much more talent and many more years to get experience and get better.”
That’s certainly the most encouraging part of playing so many young guys on the offensive line for UT (1-2, 0-1 SEC), which could feature two or three other freshmen along with James up front against the Blazers (1-2, 0-1 C-USA).
But after enrolling early and going through spring practice, winning a starting job in fall camp and then hiding his lack of experience well through three games by only drawing one holding call, James has emerged as arguably the player with the biggest upside in last year’s signing class. And though he admitted during his first media session with UT that he initially had some concerns about the speed of the game, hanging tough against consecutive top-10 opponents over the last couple weeks has erased them now.
“That first game against UT Martin, everything was moving fast,” James said. “I don’t know if that was just because it was my first game or what, but everything was moving fast and I got kind of hyper. As the weeks go on at practice and we keep watching the film, watching these guys and game planning against them and actually getting on the field, it’s slowing down during the game.
“It was a big surprise. I go into every game thinking, all right the best guy on the field is going to be coming at me every play and I have to bring my ‘A’ game every play. Once I get out there and it’s less than what I expected, it motivates me to keep working harder and harder.”
Given his enormous 6-foot-7, 313-pound frame, there’s no telling what that work might produce for the Vols.
Clearly James has the perfect size for his position, and he’s also blessed with quick feet and came ready-made to pass protect after doing so much of it in a spread system at North Gwinnett (Ga.) High School. But perhaps the asset that’s helped him transition so well and so quickly for the Vols is a mindset that never seems to have him rattled or overly excited — at least since the opener.
“If he’s doing it, he’s hiding it well,” Vols coach Derek Dooley said. “That steady approach is what I love, because that’s how I am. It’s every day go to work and just perform. If you don’t do well, you correct it and go do well tomorrow. If you do well, see why you did well and go do it again tomorrow.
“He has that demeanor, has that approach to work, it’s like he’s never fazed. I hope he maintains that, because I think that’s what allowed him to get in there and blossom.”
The Vols didn’t waste any time getting him in there. By any measure, they haven’t seen any reason he’ll be leaving the lineup for a while either.