After anchoring the right side of the University of Tennessee offensive line for the last four years, Ja'Wuan James is finally making the transition to the NFL. With 49 career starts under his belt, James is one of the most experienced tackle prospects in the 2014 draft class.
"Everybody has different circumstances," James said about his decision to come back to Tennessee after his junior season. "I thought about it some last year, but I thought it was best for me to come back. I'm glad I made that decision, but everybody's going to make the decision that is best for themselves."
The extra year in college certainly helped James refine his game and made him a better player. Perhaps most importantly, the Vols offense switched from a man-blocking scheme to predominantly zone blocking. James' transition to the new system was seamless. He and teammate Antonio Richardson combined to help the Volunteers to the most productive rushing game in the last nine years.
But James' strength is in his ability to pass protect. He has a solid kick step and was consistently able to anchor against very good SEC pass rushers. In the 2013 season he showed more promise as a run blocker, finishing blocks more often and getting to the second level. Depending on what team ultimately drafts him James may end up playing on the left side of the line instead of the right, which is where he has been entrenched at for his entire college career.
"I face great pass rushers all the time in the SEC. I can pass block, I can run block, and a tackle to me is a tackle. I feel like I can do both. I'm just going to go out here and show my skills, show what I can do," James said during the NFL combine in February.
Comparisons are often made between James and Richardson, especially now that they are both competing against each other for the same things. Ironically they may end up playing the position that the other played in college - James at left tackle and Richardson on the right.
"At the end of the day we're brothers but we're out here competing," James said about Richardson. "Competing for a spot, competing for a job. But it's definitely healthy competition, we pushed each other a lot during the season - Zach [Fulton] and James [Stone] as well. I think that's why we turned out to be a good group of guys, because we were all competing against each other. Every day we had to bring it."
The 6-6 312-pounder is currently projected as a second-round prospect, although it will not be a surprise if he sneaks into the end of the first. The thing that most scouts are most concerned about with James is his feet. He also does not always seem to get out of his stance as quickly as the rest of the offensive line and that causes him to miss some blocks, especially against more speedy defenders.
But if he does get his hands on someone, it is usually lights out.
"I defintely feel like I'm going to come in with the mindset [that I am a starter]," James said. "You've got to come in with the mindset that you're going to play as a starter. I'll come in and try to learn from the older guys, learn from the coaching there, get my technique down. Just go out there and compete. That's all I can do is compete."
After four straight years of going against some of the best defenses in the college game, James appears ready to do just that at the highest level of football.