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December 27, 2012

The young and the restless

* This story appeared in the November 2012 edition of Blue White Illustrated.

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It's one of those longstanding rules at Penn State: No true freshman speaks to the media.

No matter how significant the occasion - Rob Bolden becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for Penn State, Silas Redd rushing for 131 yards in a thrilling comeback victory over Northwestern - the rule has been vigorously enforced through the years.

But an exception was made after the Nittany Lions' season-ending victory over Wisconsin on Nov. 24, in which Jesse James made a pair of game-changing receptions and, at least for the afternoon, prompted the Penn State athletic communications staff to throw the old rule to the wayside.

"They asked me to come in and talk," James said in the crowded Beaver Stadium media room, encircled by a group of reporters who were surprised by the presence of a first-year player in a postgame news conference. "Coach O'Brien has as lot of trust in me. I feel like I'm a redshirt freshman, really."

James, a tight end from Glassport, Pa., enrolled at Penn State last January after graduating early from South Allegheny High. He wasn't a redshirt freshman this past fall, but he did get a six-month head start on the rest of his class. And at 6-foot-7, 264 pounds, he certainly looks like an upperclassman.

James came on strong last spring, raising expectations among those who watched him catch two passes for 24 yards in the Blue-White Game. He had high expectations heading into the season, believing he could be a key contributor to Penn State's new tight-end- focused offense. "I came in early," he said, "so I was expecting to play."

But James caught only two passes in Penn State's first six games, and he began to grow disenchanted with his role. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter was making headlines, and even Paul Jones was being tried at the position after playing quarterback his first two seasons on campus. Listed behind Garry Gilliam, James was seeing more game action than most freshmen. But he was being used as a blocker rather than as a pass-catcher. He had focused much of his senior year at South Allegheny on his blocking prowess, so he was happy to contribute in the run game, but he also wanted to catch passes.

Frustrated with his role, James said he wasn't "having the best practices." A few upperclassmen, specifically linebacker Michael Mauti, began to take notice. James said Mauti and a couple classmates pulled the 18-year-old off to the side for a heart-to-heart conversation that contained a clear message: "Practice how you play."

"Over the bye week, I talked to a couple of [the seniors]," James said. "They really put it on me about how hard you have to practice. And I carried that through the rest of the season and ended up playing a lot better."

He began to pick up the pace in practice and hit his peak just when the Nittany Lions needed him most.

Against Nebraska late in the season, Carter dislocated his wrist on a fourth-quarter touchdown reception. The injury forced him out of action for the remainder of the season, coming on the heels of a previous injury against Ohio State.

James was more than ready for his role to expand. He had spent most of the season playing the "F" tight end position, but Bill O'Brien and tight end coach John Strollo began working him at the "Y" position, a hybrid spot incorporating elements of the tight end, slot receiver and H-back. O'Brien said even experienced players have difficulty making the transition, let alone freshmen. James, however, seemed to prosper.

First, against Purdue, he caught three passes for 49 yards and a touchdown. Then he caught six more passes for two touchdowns and 153 yards in the Lions' last three games. One of those catches was a 41-yard touchdown grab against Wisconsin. By season's end, it was James who was grabbing headlines.

"He has unlimited potential," O'Brien said. "He is a 6‑7, 265‑pound young kid who came out of high school early and took a while to learn what we were trying to do. But, you know, he kept working at it. He's a hard‑working Pittsburgh kid, and he is coached well by John Strollo. He's done well in the weight room, and we're expecting big things from him over the next few years."

Expectations are high for the entire position unit, actually. Carter, an All-Big Ten selection, and James both have three years of remaining eligibility, and James said they will finish their careers in Happy Valley. "I'm sure everyone is staying," he said. "The locker room in there, everyone loves each other. We're one family, one team."

Gilliam has at least another year in blue and white, too, and Matt Lehman, a walk-on who finished fourth on the team with 24 receptions, will be back for another year. Brent Wilkerson, a former three-star recruit, will be coming off a redshirt season, and top prospect Adam Breneman arrives in January.

It ought to be quite the battle come spring. James is well aware of the competition he'll be facing, but he said he's prepared. "I'm going to do the same stuff as I've always done," he said. "I've always worked hard. Hard work and dedication, and I'll be fine."


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