Oct. 4, 2013
By Brian Rice
When Ja'Waun James pledged to make the trip up I-75 from Georgia to play for the University of Tennessee, he envisioned a successful career. Most consensus four-star athletes, as James was, figure to be cornerstones of the programs that they sign with. But few could have imagined just how critical and consistent James has been for the Tennessee program during his time in Knoxville.
James got a jump start on his career, enrolling in January 2010 to participate in spring practice and the offseason conditioning program. Before his first week on campus had passed, the head coach that had recruited and signed him was abruptly gone. An event that would shake the psyche of many young players only served to motivate James.
His hard work and determination was rewarded as the 2010 season opened. When the Volunteers took the field for the opener against Tennessee-Martin, 12 true freshmen saw action, but just one started. James took his spot at right tackle, and has lined up there for the first snap in every game since.
"I've really been blessed," James said of his longevity at the position. "God gave me the opportunity and kept me healthy for all of these games. It helps me experience-wise, makes me wiser having learned from games from my freshman, sophomore and junior years."
The Volunteers amassed a season-high 537 yards that afternoon against the Skyhawks, thanks to James and his linemates. The unit continued to gel as the season went on and allowed just six sacks over the final four games of the regular season, a stretch in which UT went 4-0 to earn a bid to the Music City Bowl.
For five of those 2010 starts, and nearly every game since, James has lined up next to fellow senior Zach Fulton, who claimed a starting job late in his freshman season and has held it for all but one game over his career, missing only the 2012 South Carolina game with an ankle injury.
"It definitely helps a lot playing next to Zach," James said of his partner on the right side of the offensive line. "I know his tendencies and he knows mine. We know each other; we know we're going to make the right calls. It gives us a different level of confidence."
The starting streak is impressive at any position, but particularly on the offensive line. If he can avoid injury and Tennessee qualifies for a bowl game in 2013, James would become the first lineman to start 50 games as a Volunteer. Only one position player, Jonathan Hefney, has ever accomplished that feat. Hefney shares the consecutive starts record with kicker Jeff Hall at 50, the number James would hit with 13 starts in 2013.
James had an opportunity to leave for the NFL following his junior season, but returning to the Volunteers was just what he needed, both on the field and off.
"I wasn't ready to leave physically or mentally," said James. "I felt like I had a lot to build on strength-wise and growing up-wise. It definitely helps that all of us stayed together as an offensive line." His consistency on the field is a reflection of the coaching James has taken at UT. Butch Jones and his staff raised that bar considerably when they stepped in the door.
"They brought a lot of consistency in their message," James said of the impact Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney have made on him. "They preach effort and working hard. A lot of coaches say it, but they live it every day. I feel like this coaching staff definitely has me playing a lot harder."