Jesse James dashed into the flat, looked a pass from Matt McGloin into his hands and cut up field with swaths of green grass in front of him.
Wisconsin defenders, caught well out of position, scrambled toward the tight end as he streaked along the Penn State sideline, but they were just a bit too late. The freshman slipped his way past a diving Darius Hillary at the goal line to score a go-ahead touchdown in the Nittany Lions’ 24-21 win against the Badgers on Saturday.
“[Wide receiver Allen Robinson] took the coverage away, and it left me open.” James said of the touchdown. “That’s how the play is supposed to work. It worked out.”
The 41-yard scoring play was typical of the big-gainers James put up during the entire second half of the season on his way to posting a team-leading 18.4 yards per reception in 2012.
A Glassport, Pa. native, James caught just 15 balls as the third option at tight end behind Kyle Carter and Matt Lehman, both slotted at the pass-catching “F” tight end spot. But he made the catches count, racking up 276 yards and five touchdowns.
He put up 90 of those yards on just three catches against Wisconsin, a performance his teammates believe is an indication of his potential to contribute game-changing plays in 2013 and beyond.
“Expect a lot of big things from him,” wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder said. “Today, we called his number. We needed the big play from him, and he gave us a big play.”
James was the only member of Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class to enroll at Penn State last spring. He said the early start gave him a chance to spend extra time with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, which helped him bulk up ahead of his first season.
Moseby-Felder believes James’ 6-foot-7, 264-pound frame gives him an advantage going up against smaller defensive backs in the secondary. Offensive lineman John Urshel thinks those traits will only help him moving forward.
“Listen, Jesse James is a physical freak,” Urschel said. “That guy is going to be a good football player. He’s a freshman right now. That’s one of the biggest freshmen I’ve ever seen. He’s done a great job for us this year, and he’s going to continue to do a great job for us in future years.”
And James plans to be in Happy Valley for those future years.
Although NCAA sanctions allow underclassmen to transfer anywhere in the country without penalty this offseason, he said he plans to stick with the program for the long term, even if it means heavy competition for playing time.
Carter, James, Lehman and Garry Gilliam form a core quartet of tight ends with eligibility remaining after getting a lot of playing time this season. Highly-touted prospect Adam Breneman is currently committed to join the group this spring, meaning there should be a lot of jockeying for position come spring practice.
James is confident he’ll find a role, though.
“I’m going to do the same stuff I’ve always done,” James said. “I’ve always worked hard, hard work and dedication. I’ll be fine, not too worried about it.”