May 9, 2014
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- Ja'Wuan James' ascension up the draft boards an into the first round of Thursday's NFL may have come as a surprise to many, but not his head coach.
Butch Jones has now mentored three NFL first-rounders in the last seven years after James joined Central Michigan stars Eric Fisher, the top overall pick last season and Joe Staley, the 28th overall selection for the San Francisco 49ers in 2007.
"We're exceptionally proud of him," Jones said of James, who completed his eligibility and his degree in December. "Not only is he a first-round draft pick, but he's a University of Tennessee graduate. That's very, very special to be able to excel in the classroom the same way he excelled on the field. He's an individual with great character, great competitive character, a great person that comes from a great family, I just think the world of Ja'Wuan."
The 45th first-round pick in the history of Tennessee Football was considered by many the first recruit of the Jones era. James was projected as a mid-round prospect as a junior a year ago, but with the coaching transition, Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney had to sell James on the vision for both the program and James' career. That vision paid off with a successful season and a move into the first round.
"He trusted everything we told him, Coach Mahoney did a great job building that trust and that relationship," Jones said. "With Ja'Wuan, it was an easy sell because he loves Tennessee. Change is difficult for everyone and growing from it is necessary. I am grateful he listened to our plan and I am indebted to him for that."
Joining the select group of first-round selections was something James dreamed of in the recruiting process, when he picked Tennessee over Alabama shortly before signing day. Now his jersey joins the other 44 on the wall of first-round picks in the state-of-the-art Anderson Training Center.
"It is a true blessing and honor to be in the same club as the greats who once wore the "T" in Neyland Stadium," James said the morning after his selection by the Dolphins.
James helped anchor a Tennessee offensive line that has been on of the program's primary strengths the last couple of seasons. In Miami, he will be reunited with another rock of that line, Dallas Thomas, a third-round pick of the Dolphins last season and one of the members of the group that dubbed themselves "OLP" for "Offensive Line Pride" in 2012.
"It's pretty cool, I'm really excited about it," James said of joining Thomas in Miami. "Part of the "OLP" back in action!"
James said he saw the Dolphins as a good fit for him throughout the pre-draft process. Jones agreed.
"We as a staff have very strong ties with the Dolphins," Jones said. "He is great in the locker room and has that inner drive. He has the make-up of a champion. He has great character and I think that he's a great, great pick, one they're going to like for many years."
Jones also hopes current and future Volunteers model themselves after James, both on the field and away from it.
"Ja'Wuan is the illustration of our standard of excellence in every aspect of our program," Jones said. "He embodies what a student-athlete should be at the University of Tennessee."