- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Jesse James is a freak of nature.
Really, there's no other way to describe the 6-foot-7, 272-pound tight end. Coaches and teammates tried their best Saturday to brainstorm other fitting adjectives or ways to encapsulate the junior's ability. But, without fail, they kept returning to that same phrase.
"Jesse is just a freak of nature," fellow Penn State tight end Adam Breneman said. "I don't know how else to describe him."
Added strength coach Dwight Galt: "He's a freak. ... Athletically, talent-wise, there's not another tight end in the country better than him, for sure. He's got speed, he's got strength, he's got agility, he's got size. He's got everything."
James lived up to that billing during Saturday afternoon's annual Lift for Life event, which pit the offense and defense against one another in seven strength competitions while helping raise money to fight kidney cancer. During the 225-pound bench press, the weights exploded off James' chest so quickly it was as if they came from a balloon stand. The tight end's spotter called out "Seven!" before his defensive end opponent reached three.
The reps came so quickly, it was easy to lose count. Once finished, a Penn State trainer turned to James' spotter and asked about the final tally. Upon hearing the answer, he just shook his head and looked confused: "What? ... Twenty-seven?" James' teammates alternated between head-shaking and patting him on the shoulder.
Had James reached that number in any of the last 10 NFL combines, he would've placed within the top five at his position -- and he would've been at the very top in 2008 and 2011. Compared to the most recent combine, his 27 reps were two fewer than first-round offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and one more than first-round defensive tackle Dominique Easley.
"He'll surprise you every day. You never know what's coming with Jesse," Christian Hackenberg said. "It's actually interesting when you get out there with what he does, just how good he is and how fast he is and how strong he is."
It's not easy to overthrow James, who reportedly runs in the 4.6 range and stands as the second-tallest player on the 121-man roster. That might have something to do with his recent addition to the Mackey Award watch list. Of course, the fact he's Penn State's leading returnee with 25 catches and 333 yards doesn't hurt either.
Put simply, yes, the guy's a freak.
"To get a guy that big that does what he does, I haven't seen that," Galt said. "I've been really lucky. I had five tight ends in the NFL at one time, including Vernon Davis and Dan Gronkowski, Rob's brother, and I'll tell you what -- I'll put Jesse James up there with any of them. The kid is really that athletic and that good of a player."
Players spoke in such revered and hyperbolic fashion about James that, at times, it seemed as if they were discussing Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Tailback Akeel Lynch just laughed when asked about what impressed him most about James and cautioned that it might not sound believable.
While most players dead lift with five or six plates and let out painful groans between each lift, Lynch said, Penn State's tight end takes it a step further. Lynch smiled, bent his knees and pantomimed lifting up and down with ease. "And he puts the max weight you can on a bar," Lynch said. "He's a freak. He's a good guy, but he's a freak."
On Saturday, James performed 12 reps on the dead lift at 495 pounds. And he promised before the event that he planned to take it easy since this was for charity. ("I won't put too much on today, but it'll be fun.") So what exactly is the max weight the junior can dead lift?
"I have no idea," he said matter-of-factly, with a slight shrug. "We haven't found it."
James is one of the last players who would exaggerate his talent. The aw-shucks kid from the small, blue-collar borough of Glassport, Pennsylvania, didn't mind dissecting Hackenberg's improvement or waxing poetic on how the freshman receivers were coming along. But it was as if his white T-shirt grew itchy whenever he was asked about himself.
"I'm not really the person to talk to about that," James said. "That's just how I was raised."
Added offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach: "That's the way he is. Modest guy, really good guy."
Humility might serve him well, but the Nittany Lions need someone to step up in a big to make up for more than 125 receptions of lost production from last season. (Allen Robinson, who caught 97 balls in 2013, is now in the NFL.) James is certainly a candidate to be that player, at least in the end zone, and expectations are soaring for the junior.
It's still to be determined how James' speed and strength will transfer over to the gridiron this season. But at least one thing is for certain.
"He's a freak," Dieffenbach said. "A freak of nature."
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