James expects big year

UNIVERSITY PARK – He’s affectionally called a freak, which is appropriate when considering his immense size, strength and athletic ability.

Penn State tight end Jesse James is a tremendous physical specimen at 6-foot-7 and a chiseled 272 pounds. He’s also incredibly strong, bench pressing 225 pounds 27 times and deadlifting 495 pounds 12 times at Saturday’s Lift for Life fundraiser.

“Jesse is a freak (athlete),” PSU strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said. “He’s putting up national elite numbers.”

James has plenty to brag about off the field, but being big and strong doesn’t make a guy a star on the field.

Oh, but James appears to have that going for him, too, as a promising tight end who could be on the verge of a big season as a junior this fall.

James finished third on the Nittany Lions with 25 catches and second with 333 receiving yards last season while pulling down three TDs. Those numbers could rise in a big way if he has the kind of season many are projecting from him this year.

“I’m a ton (better), it’s not even close,” James said of how far he’s come as a player in his two years at Penn State. “In high school, you think you know it all, you think you know what it takes to be a great tight end at the next level.

“But when you get here, having Coach (Bill) O’Brien, he really helped me jump the curve and learn things that might have taken a little longer in different offenses.”

James showed his impressive receiving skills as a true freshman in 2012, catching 15 passes, including five TDs. But he still had a long way to go with his blocking skills as a tight end, and he made strides there last year under former position coach John Strollo.

“With Coach Strollo, he taught me a lot about the blocking techniques and just how to be a better blocker,” James said. “He was so precise on what we needed to do to get the job done. Blocking’s big, and then just running the routes, it’s totally different than what you do in high school.”

It’s easy to see in game action if a tight end can catch the ball, but most people aren’t watching to see how well he blocks. Being able to handle that aspect of the position is what determines a truly effective tight end.

“It’s a lot of effort. You’ve got to learn how to do it,” James said of blocking. “It’s not something that you can just come out there and just give effort and get it done. You have to really learn the techniques and how to approach some of the D-ends by watching film and stuff.”

One of the more interesting story lines of this NFL offseason has been whether New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham should be classified as a receiver or tight end with regards to contract negotiations. Graham caught 86 passes last season and often lines up off the line, so to get more money, he felt he should be considered a receiver.

As football continues to evolve and bigger, athletic tight ends become more and more important in the passing game, there may come a time when they are labeled differently.

Asked how he views himself, as more of a receiver or a traditional tight end, James said: “I think I’m a balanced player. I think I can do it all. I can block and run. I don’t know which one I’d necessarily say I’m better at. I think I do a good job at both.”

The sky’s the limit for James as long as he continues to show the kind of progress over the next two years that he’s already displayed. He has everything that NFL teams want in a tight end, and if he has two big years at PSU, his stock could soar come the 2016 draft.

He’s starting to get more national notoriety, appearing on several all-Big Ten lists this summer, and the attention will only continue to grow if he’s able to reach his enormous potential.

“It’s good, but I try not to pay attention,” James said of the notoriety. “I’m still trying to get better and have a great season.”