Through four games last season, Paul James was one of the best running backs in the Big Ten.
James, a Big Ten newcomer with the rest of his Rutgers teammates, proved himself in the same class as the conference’s bevy of brilliant backs. Through four games, he rushed for 363 yards and established himself as a dual-threat back, going for another 120 receiving yards. He scored a total of seven touchdowns as the Scarlet Knights went 3-1 against Washington State, Howard, Penn State and Navy.
A torn ACL ended his season after those four games, Rutgers lost its then-best offensive player and the Big Ten lost one of its top tailbacks.
But a new year brings a new opportunity for James to pick up where he left off.
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“Paul James is one of the best examples we have in our program of what I believe are the type of players we have in our program: Guys who overcome adversity,” head coach Kyle Flood said earlier this month during the team’s media day. “Very few players in our history have had more adversity than Paul James has. And when you say, what do I expect: I expect him to be the same player he was the last two years when he was healthy, because I've watched him out there for a week right now. We gave him one practice off yesterday morning. Other than that, he has practiced the entire week and he has looked like Paul James. He doesn't look like Paul James coming off an injury. He looks like the Paul James who was one of the top running backs for us.”
As Flood alluded to, James’ ACL tear last season was hardly his first injury. So this season, he’s trying to stay on the field, first and foremost.
James will be one of the more reliable members of an offense that needs to replace departed quarterback Gary Nova and departed tight end Tyler Kroft. Plus, the Knights welcome in a new offensive coordinator in Ben McDaniels. Along with wide receiver Leonte Carroo, James will be a focal point on that side of the ball.
And while his absence last season allowed valuable experience for guys like Desmon Peoples, Josh Hicks and Justin Goodwin — who are all back for 2015, giving the Knights a lot of depth at the position — it also seemed to give James more drive. The guy who was an All-AAC First Team running back in 2013 and a guy who started off the 2014 season in grand fashion is starting off the 2015 season as one of the team’s leaders.
“We played the bowl game. We stayed overnight and the next day we had a breakfast. What we do is we give the seniors one last chance to stand up and we clap them out as a program, and then the seniors leave and we have our first team meeting for the next year,” Flood recounted. “When our seniors went out, I went outside the room for a minute to take a picture with the seniors. And then by the time I had come back in, which was probably about two minutes later, Paul James was already taking to the team. And he was talking about his expectations — and there were a lot of people in agreement — for where he wanted the program to go.”
After the mass exodus of guys like Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb, Tevin Coleman and Jeremy Langford — all on to the NFL — James could easily and quickly re-establish himself as one of the conference’s top running backs. Only time will tell if he can start this season the same way he started the last. But if he can, Rutgers could once again impress in the Big Ten.