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Penn State TE James readies for breakout season

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 10:15 p.m.

In March 2011, during his junior year at South Allegheny, football star Jesse James committed to attend Penn State. Joe Paterno was the Nittany Lions' coach, Jerry Sandusky a respected, if not revered, former assistant, and Happy Valley was aptly named.

Just about everything changed, of course, but not James' mind. He graduated from high school early and arrived on campus in early 2012 shortly after new coach Bill O'Brien. When the NCAA handed down its stiff sanctions and allowed players to transfer without restraint, James and a teammate set out to visit another school. They quickly turned around.

“This was the place I wanted to be,” James said. “Without football, I'd still want to be at Penn State.”

He also acknowledged, “The offense is great for a tight end.”

James is a 6-foot-7, 250-pound tight end, a self-described “big body,” playing for a coach whose knowledge of the position is hard to match among his peers. Before taking the Penn State job, O'Brien was New England's offensive coordinator during a time the Patriots, featuring Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, were helping advance the use of tight ends in the NFL.

“He has experience with some of the best tight ends in the game, bringing his knowledge, giving us what he knows,” he said. “They just keep teaching us every day.”

As a freshman last season, James played in every game and started six. He finished with a modest 15 catches, but all seemed to count. His 18.4 yards per catch led the team, and he caught five touchdown passes to tie a school record for tight ends. His 41-yard catch-and-run on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin led to an overtime win in the season finale.

All-Big Ten selection Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and James combined for 75 catches, 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns at tight end. All are back this season, joined by touted freshman Adam Breneman.

Even with the added company, James, who had a big Blue-White Game last spring, is expected to blossom.

“He's definitely in better condition,” O'Brien said. “He's a very smart player, so he's gained more knowledge of the offense. I believe he's improved in his ball-handling skills and his route-running skills, and he's improved as a blocker. When he first got here, he couldn't block me, and now he's definitely a better, much better blocker.”

James was taken aback when informed of O'Brien assessment of his early blocking skills, or lack thereof. But he admitted his coach might have had a point.

“I was a good high school blocker, but anyone can block in high school,” James said. “Coming here, you're going against the best of the best.”

Tight ends coach John Strollo said he wasn't discouraged by James' blocking.

“He was a freshman and, you know, with freshmen there's a lot of things going through their heads,” he said.

Besides, Strollo knew he had a willing and capable student.

“He understands what's going on,” he said.

Which is this: “We're a throwin' outfit now,” Strollo said. “That's what we do. We're gonna play the guys who can catch, and we're gonna teach 'em how to block.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

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