James, at 6-foot-7, makes an impact during Blue-White Game

UNIVERSITY PARK – The ball from quarterback Tyler Ferguson fluttered into the howling wind toward tight end Jesse James in the back of the north end zone Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.

James, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, caught the pass, and it was ruled a touchdown. It’s debatable as to whether James had a foot in at the time. If the Blue-White Game were a regular-season game, the play would have been reviewed.

“I think I was in,” James said. “The film won’t lie, so I’ll check it out.”

“It was tough to see,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said, “but I think he was in.”

The catch was the exclamation point on a pretty good first half for James, who didn’t play much in the second half of the game, which was officially won by the Blue, 67-47.

James caught five passes for 77 yards, leading the offense in both receptions and yards. His touchdown catch from Ferguson, the junior college transfer from California, was a 27-yarder with 9:28 left in the second quarter.

“I played pretty well,” James said. “I’m a big body, and Coach [Bill] O’Brien knows how to use us. I got a little faster and I’ve been running routes better.”

“Jesse’s had a good spring,” O’Brien said. “He’s just a great guy, big physical, good hands. He made some plays out there today.”

Last year, James caught 15 passes for 276 yards, and he had five touchdown passes, which tied the school record for TDs by a tight end, joining Bob Parsons (1971) and Dan Natale (1972). He was named a honorable mention All-American.

James made six starts, and he was among six true freshmen to play for the Lions last season. His 41-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter of the 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin was the go-ahead score.

Asked if he feels any pressure to live up to last year’s performance, James said, “There’s no pressure. I’ll keep doing what I do, working hard with Fitz [Craig Fitzgerald, strength and conditioning coach] and it will work out.”

James, whose arms look as big as some offensive linemen might have, weighs 255 pounds, and he said he trimmed his body fat from 16 percent to eight percent working with Fitzgerald.

“He’s a great player,” center Ty Howell said. “He’s a big, strong, physical, smart kid. He wants to do well. He’s a real good kid. He’s one of these kids who doesn’t take a day off. He’s always trying to get better, bigger, stronger, faster. The kid is already a house, and this past winter, he trimmed his body fat to some ridiculous percent. The kid is a physical specimen.

“He’s doing a great job for us, and he’s going to be a great player.”

James, who graduated from South Allegheny High School, where he was second-team all-state, enrolled at Penn State in January of 2012, giving him a jump on the new Penn State offensive scheme. With the 2012 experience and another spring season under his belt, he could make bigger strides in the 2013 season.

“Jesse’s improved a lot of last year,” Robinson said. “We know there’s a lot of upside with what he can do as a receiver and blocker for us, and I think he’s improved those things in the spring.”

“I really don’t have any personal goals,” James said. “I just want our offense to do well so the team can do well.”

The tight ends, of course, played a major role in O’Brien’s offense last season. Tight end Kyle Carter, who didn’t play Saturday because of a wrist injury, was second on the team in receptions (36) and yards (453) behind Robinson.

“We’re getting better,” James said. “We’re going to just continue from where we left off last year and keep it going.”

A lot of the tight ends success will depend on the quarterback play. Ferguson and sophomore Steven Bench, both of whom completed 9-of-15 passes, are contending for the starting spot vacated by the graduation of Matt McGloin. And incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg will be added to the mix in the fall.

“They’re both good guys. They handle the huddle well,” James said of Ferguson and Bench. “They both do a good job.”

James is a young man of few words. When he does speak, he won’t boast about what he’s done or what he’s going to do, but his teammates know how well he can play.

“He’s calm and quiet, but he’s definitely a tough guy on the field,” Robinson said, “and he’s a hard worker.”