Jesse James' secret weapon? It's really no secret at all.
"Just look at him," said Kyle Carter at Penn State's football media day Monday afternoon, glancing over at his fellow tight end. "He's a big dude."
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No argument there. James is listed on Penn State's most recent roster at 6-foot-7, 254 pounds, and his real weight is probably closer to 270. He looks like a prototype NFL tight end, even though he turned 20 only two months ago. Even on a team full of brawny, athletic-looking guys, he's got the kind of physique that stands out.
"He's like Gronkowski already," said Carter, referring to New England Patriots Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski. "So that's one thing that he definitely has. And he knows the game. He just does everything that you ask him to do."
The word "freakish" seems to come up a lot when teammates and coaches discuss the athletic ability that James brings to Penn State's offense. Head coach James Franklin, strength coach Dwight Galt and teammates Adam Breneman, Akeel Lynch and Miles Dieffenbach have all used it. John Donovan, Penn State's offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, managed to avoid it at media day, but when a reporter described James as a "large human," Donovan quickly interjected. Said the coach, "He's not human."
Human or not, there is one thing about James that is not in dispute: He is Penn State's top returning pass-catcher with 25 receptions for 333 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. No less certain is that his role - and that of all the Nittany Lions' tight ends - will expand this fall now that Allen Robinson is gone after leading the team in receptions the past two seasons.
Franklin said Monday that much of the production that Penn State has lost with Robinson's early departure for the NFL "will come from the tight end position. That's where we have the most veteran players and experience and depth."
James' physical ability is one reason why he's being cited as one of the Nittany Lions' rising stars. At Penn State's Lift for Life event in July, he dazzled onlookers by completing 27 reps in the 225-pound bench press, a total that would have placed him among the top five tight ends in the past 10 NFL combines. He also performed 12 reps at 495 pounds.
And he isn't just strong. James also boasts 4.6-second 40-yard speed and has the kind of sticky hands that produce first downs and points. His average of 13.3 yards per catch last season was second only to Robinson (14.8) on Penn State's team. And he's scored eight touchdowns during the past two seasons, the team's third-highest total behind Zach Zwinak (19), Robinson (17) and Bill Belton (11).
James' performance as a sophomore made a big impression on Donovan when the first-year offensive coordinator began watching the Nittany Lions' 2013 game films. Understandably, it was the player's size that initially stood out.
"He looked tall. He looked like what you want a tight end to look like," Donovan said. "He played a lot, and he made a lot of plays for them."
In the spring, Donovan worked with James to improve his blocking, helping him to become an even more versatile threat for the Nittany Lions. The goal this summer is to keep the momentum going. Said Donovan, "If he can continue to improve from where he was in the spring, I'm expecting him to have a dominant year. He needs to think that way, too."
If James does think that way, he's unlikely to say so publicly. While he routinely inspires flights of rhetorical creativity in his teammates and coaches, the Glassport, Pa., native is guarded when talking about himself. His goals this season, he said, are "to be a better leader and win as many games as possible." As for the attention he's been getting from sportswriters and fans, he's doing his best to shrug it off. And his best is pretty good.
"I know I could have had better seasons in the past, and I look forward to improving as we go on," he said. "I'm excited to get back into it and see how the season goes."
James said he goes out of his way to avoid the preseason magazines. The reason? "To stay level. I'm always a level guy. I just try to do the best I can for my team."
But while James is reluctant to talk about himself, others are more than happy to extol his many talents, largely because those talents are so rarely found in one player.
"You don't find many guys who have the ability to do what he hopefully will be able to do, which is put his hand in the ground next to a tackle and block like a lineman, or get out in space and have good hands and be able to run a route and have the spatial awareness to get open," Donovan said. "There aren't many guys like that out there. Some of the tight ends in the league, they can't block like he can, or like he hopefully will. So the fact that he can do both is pretty amazing. We definitely saw signs this spring of him being dominant. If he can do that, he can be very versatile, that's for sure."