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Penn State Football: Jesse James’ Potential is So Good He May Be Outlawed

on May 01, 2012 10:31 PM

When Jesse James was asked about his infamous name last summer, he provided a witty response to a reporter.

"My dad just wanted me to have a name everyone would remember," he said.

Mission accomplished.

James is not an outlaw like his more famous namesake. Instead, he is a hulking 6-foot-7, 265-pound freshman tight end at Penn State who hopes to forge his own identity this fall.

He was the Nittany Lions' lone early enrollee this spring from the 2012 recruiting class and emerged from the Blue-White Game last month with two catches for 24 yards and lots of praise after running with the first-team offense in front of an estimated 60,000 fans in Beaver Stadium.

James, large enough to easily be an offensive tackle, is a big target who seems to be a good fit for first-year coach Bill O'Brien's tight end-happy offense.

On top of that, if James continues to improve in the offseason, he has a chance to be a starter for the Sept. 1 home opener against Ohio University.

"He's adjusted very well," O'Brien said Tuesday in Baltimore during a stop on the Penn State Coaches Caravan. "We'll find out when the final grades come out at the end of this week how well he did. But all reports are he's adjusted very well."

O'Brien praised James' alma mater, South Allegheny High School in suburban Pittsburgh, for easing the freshman's early transition to Penn State in January.

"There's a lot of credit that should be given to him and his high school and his high school teachers for training him to be ready to do that," O'Brien said.

But the coach warned against great expectations.

"Now, he's a young kid, he's a big kid, he's a very, very talented kid and he's got a chance to be a really good player for us," O'Brien said. "But I think we have to slow down on comparing him to (New England tight end) Rob Gronkowski, and guys like that. Those are Pro Bowl, NFL players.

"But he's a got a chance to be a really good player."

James was one of four tight ends to catch passes in the Blue-White Game, joining Matt Lehman (2 receptions-25 yards, one touchdown), Brian Irvin (1-18) and Garry Gilliam (1-11).

"When I saw him competing in the Blue-White Game, he looked like he belonged as a college ballplayer with what he did on that field that day," said Pat Monroe, a former Penn State wide receiver who coached James at South Allegheny.

"We have to wait and see what happens in the fall and whether he starts. But I know Jesse will do whatever he can and more to make sure he's on the field."

As a freshman at South Allegheny, James barely played. Midway through his sophomore year, he finally was on his way to blossoming into a decent player when Monroe decided to name James one of the team's captains – at the tender age of 15.

"There's only one other kid I've ever done that with at a similar age in my coaching career," said Monroe, who has been a head coach at the high school level since 1992. "It wasn't that Jesse could necessarily tell people what to do. It's just that his work ethic and the way he approached the game was such a great model for everybody and his teammates respected that."

James, who grew four inches between his sophomore and junior seasons, was a three-year starter and two-time second-team all-state selection at tight end for the Gladiators. He had 71 receptions for 1,030 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career.

He also was an outstanding pass-rushing defensive end for a program that compiled an 8-32 record in his four seasons, including a 3-27 mark the final three years.

"The thing about him, throughout his time with me, no matter how much we struggled, he was just a diligent, hard-working kid who did everything you told him to do," Monroe said. "I mean, every single thing in terms of offseason conditioning, working on his skills, catching the ball.

"He was a kid who would stay after practice every single day and catch 100 balls. He just did everything. All the credit for his success goes to him."

When James verbally committed to the Nittany Lions on March 28, 2011, he was rated a three-star recruit (out of five) by and had only two other scholarship offers – from Pitt and Toledo. Later, Stanford, Arkansas and Maryland reached out to him.

However, when the late Joe Paterno was dismissed as Penn State's coach Nov. 9 in wake of the child sex abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, more schools joined in the pursuit of James.

"People did come out of the woodwork and wanted to talk to him," Monroe said. "But he never seemed to waver from Penn State. (Former assistant coach and interim head coach) Tom Bradley told Jesse that he was going to be a good fit at Penn State and that Penn State was a good fit for him. And I think he trusted Tom."

Oh, and about that name?

"Jesse James is a unique name, but I think it's something he's used to now," Monroe said, chuckling. "I think he enjoys the give-and-take and the feedback that goes with it."

By the way, Jesse's father and brother both are named Rick James, who happened to be a popular funk singer in the late 1970s and '80s.

"They used to wrestle in back-to-back weight classes in high school," Monroe said. "First, they'd say Rick James and next was Jesse James. I'm sure people must have been wondering what James was coming next."

Then -- and now -- Jesse James is a hard name to forget.

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