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Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Rutgers' James adds to B1G RB crop

By Brian Bennett

The list of returning star running backs in the Big Ten is impressive, highlighted by Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Northwestern's Venric Mark and including other top rushers such as Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, Iowa's Mark Weisman, Minnesota's David Cobb, Indiana's Tevin Coleman and Penn State's Zach Zwinak.

We've got one more name to add to that list: Rutgers' Paul James.

Paul James
Paul James opened the 2013 season with three consecutive 100-yard games.
You might not know much about James if you just followed Big Ten action, but he's a superstar in the making for one of the league's two newest members. With one major caveat: If he can stay healthy.

That hasn't always come easily for the redshirt junior, and an injury derailed his potentially special 2013 campaign. Coming out of virtually nowhere, James ran for 573 yards in the first four games of last season, trailing only the aforementioned Gordon among all FBS players. He was averaging better than 7.3 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns.

"I was just going out there with high intensity," he told ESPN.com. "I felt like we had great explosion on the line, the receivers were blocking downfield, and everything was just clicking."

But James sustained a broken fibula in that fourth game against Arkansas. He missed the next four games and later suffered a sprained knee against UConn. He rebounded to rush for 113 yards in the season finale against South Florida and finished as a first-team All-American Athletic Conference honoree. But it was clear he didn't have the same burst as he'd shown early in the year.

"It's kind of hard to just come back where you left off," he said. "I tried to work my way back as much as I could, but I was limited so much."

James will be limited this spring as he recovers from a shoulder injury. The Scarlet Knights, who opened practice this week, will hold him out of most contact work, at least early on. Fellow tailback Savon Huggins is also nursing a shoulder problem.

"I think we’re going to see P.J. do some things before the end of spring," coach Kyle Flood told reporters on Monday. "I don’t see this as much of a concern."

Flood will use the spring to get more reps for redshirt freshman Justin Goodwin and sophomore Desmon Peoples, and that should mean added depth in the Rutgers backfield. But getting James back to full strength could be the best thing for the Scarlet Knights offense.

James showed no hesitation when hitting the hole early on last season, when he ripped off four runs of 50 or more yards in those first four contests. He says part of the reason for those big plays is that he's more of a straight-ahead runner without a lot of wiggle, though he's working on improving his footwork and agility this offseason.

Hardly anyone could have seen James' huge start to last season coming. He did not have a single FBS scholarship offer out of Glassboro (N.J.) High School, despite rushing for more than 1,700 yards as a junior. Conference USA-type schools showed interest in him that year, but that interest faded when James got off to a slow start his senior season because of an ankle injury. Corey Clement, who's now at Wisconsin and who has a chance to join the star Big Ten running back crop himself, ended up taking a big chunk of the carries at Glassboro that year.

So James took a preferred walk-on slot at Rutgers in 2011, sliding under the radar in the same class as Huggins, a ballyhooed signee whom ESPN.com rated as the No. 28 overall prospect in the country that year.

Huggins has run for a total of 842 yards in three years, or 39 yards fewer than James produced last season alone.

"I came in with kind of a chip on my shoulder," James said. "I felt like I wasn't really well known, and I had to prove myself."

James has made a name for himself now, and if he can stay healthy -- there's that caveat again -- he looks like a good bet for a 1,000-yard season this year. Then he could truly join the elite group of running backs in the Big Ten.

"That excites me," he said about competing in the Big Ten. "I like that the league is high on running backs, and Big Ten games are more focused on the running backs."

The running back picture is a crowded one in the league in 2014. Don't forget to include James in the photo.