Running back Chris James had his “welcome to college football” moment Tuesday midway through Pitt’s second practice of training camp.
James took the ball on a running play and thought he had enough speed to out-run the linebackers pursuing him. He had done this in high school hundreds of times and always was quick enough to get past the linebackers.
The problem is that Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez aren’t high school linebackers. They are two college players with 37 career starts combined. They easily caught up to James and brought him to the turf with maybe a bit more force than was needed for this helmets-only session.
“I thought I was a lot faster than I was,” James said.
“That was definitely when I realized, ‘OK we’re here now. You’re not the fastest on the field anymore.’ ”
Of course, James is still plenty quick, even at the collegiate level. As one of Pitt’s most highly rated recruits in the 2014 class, he figures to be one of the safest bets to see the field this year among the freshmen. When the Panthers began team contact drills Wednesday, he was often the second running back on the field after starter James Conner.
“I am excited about Chris James,” running backs coach John Settle said. “[He is] a young guy that’s living up to everything that we saw on film.”
Over his final two seasons at Notre Dame Prep in Niles, Ill., James rushed for 3,832 yards and 51 touchdowns. Listed at 5 feet 11, 210 pounds, he could be a big-play threat out of the backfield to complement a bigger back such as Conner (6-2, 250). Senior Isaac Bennett also will factor into the picture, but he has yet to practice fully after offseason shoulder surgery.
“For me, the main thing is just coming here, trying to learn the plays and showing that I’m explosive,” James said. “I think that’s the edge I have on everybody else, I’m explosive. I think I can turn a 5-yard run into an 80-yard run.”
With Bennett out, James saw regular rotations with the second team Wednesday when the Panthers practiced in shoulder pads and went through 11-on-11 drills. While James still has the occasional learning moment, Settle said James is acquitting himself well.
“I knew that he was a guy that had a lot of talent in high school, did a lot of things, but when you get to this level it is a totally different deal,” Settle said. “Every rep has been a good rep because he has learned something from it.”
For instance, on the aforementioned play when James was caught from behind by the linebackers, he said that taught him that using his athleticism isn’t always the right answer. Sometimes it’s better to slow down, let a play develop, and pick your spots to get into the open field.
Settle also praised James’ willingness to get his hands dirty in pass blocking. James admitted he didn’t block much in high school, but acknowledged that if he wants to play this year, it’s a skill he will have to improve.
“The biggest thing I’ve liked about him so far is that he hasn’t shown any fear when it comes to pass protection,” Settle said. “He stepped up in blitz periods and took guys on. He’s not against the young guys, he’s going against the vets, so that was a good thing to see. That’s promising.”
James said he also has been receiving pointers from Conner and Bennett as he goes through drills. The biggest thing he has picked up from Conner is the insistence that every drill, every rep, be as perfect as it can be.
“I’m glad, all those guys, they’re all fantastic players and I learn from them daily,” James said. “From routes, to play-calling or just being patient. After that play I got caught up [by the linebackers], [Conner] told me, ‘Be patient. This is a whole different ballgame.’ ”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.