KNOXVILLE — It’s nearly impossible to tell Ja’Wuan James is a true freshman until he takes off his football helmet.
Then, and only then, does the 6-foot-7, 313-pound offensive tackle expose a baby face that looks years away from a razor’s edge.
“It’s easy to forget he’s a true freshman,” first-year University of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said.
And that’s a very good thing for the Volunteers.
Dooley said James’ current level of play would be “solid” for a senior.
This time last year, he was a senior — at Atlanta-area North Gwinnett High School.
“He’s playing well for a true freshman, and occasionally, he’s playing well, period,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
Dooley knew he’d inherited a tremendous talent from predecessor Lane Kiffin — fortunately for the Vols, James enrolled in school just before Kiffin left for Southern California in January — and it didn’t take him long in spring practice to discover that talent was ready to play.
James got reps with the starters on the second day of spring, and he hasn’t been a backup since.
“I watched him a couple of plays, and I said, ‘He’s certainly got the size, and he’s certainly got the athleticism. It’s just going to come down to how he’s hard-wired,’” Dooley said. “And over time, it’s just proven that he’s hard-wired the right way. We’re lucky to have a guy like that.”
“Ja’Wuan’s getting better every week. He’s got a good demeanor about him. It’s important to him. And he’s very big and talented. He’s been blessed with all the qualities it takes to be a great player.”
Maturity sure seems to be one of those qualities.
James on Wednesday became the first true freshman from this year’s team to speak with the media. Dooley only makes true freshmen available on two non-negotiable conditions — they have to play a crucial role on the team but be humble and mature enough to handle it.
When Dooley explained that philosophy to media this summer, he included this comment at the end: “I’m sure you’ll get to talk to Ja’Wuan at some point.”
On Wednesday, it quickly became apparent why starting quarterback Matt Simms called James arguably the calmest presence in UT’s offensive huddle.
“I like to make sure that everyone is calm so we can do our jobs,” James said. “My mom ... she was always levelheaded. She’s just kept me like that my whole life.
“Everyone has leadership traits. I think mine would have to be that evenness.”
James doesn’t come across as a cocky person, but some of his matter-of-fact comments were staggering.
He said the speed of the game against FCS team Tennessee-Martin — UT’s season opener — seemed faster to him than the past two weeks against fifth-ranked Oregon and ninth-ranked Florida.
“It was a big surprise,” James said. “I go into every game thinking, ‘All right, the best guy on the field is coming after me every play, and I have to bring my A-game every play.’ Once I get out there and it is less than I expected, it just motivates me to keep working harder.”
He said practice conditioning and day-to-day time management have been his “hardest” adjustments to make this year.
“The easiest probably to me, and this was a surprise, was the game play,” James added. “I thought the speed was going to be too fast for me once we started playing, but I feel comfortable now and should be getting better as time goes on.
“The biggest adjustment is probably being on your own and being at certain places at certain times.”
But, again, the game play hasn’t been that difficult.
Pass protection, often the biggest problem for a young lineman, hasn’t been an issue for James. His high school team employed a spread look.
“From what I see, his guy isn’t really hitting me very much,” Simms said. “That’s kind of how I judge it. You have to look at our offensive production. I don’t think he has [allowed] any sacks, really, and we have been running the ball really effectively to his side.”
Penalties, another problem for most young players at any position, haven’t pestered James. A holding call early in the fourth quarter against Florida has been his lone blemish.
“He’s very bright,” Dooley said. “I think what’s special about Ja’Wuan, is his demeanor is steady. I’ve never seen him get excited, and I’ve never seen him get down. Now if he’s doing it, he’s hiding it well. And that steady approach is what I love, because that’s how I am. It’s every day, go to work, and just perform. And if you don’t do well, correct it and go do well tomorrow. If you did well, see why you did well and go do it again tomorrow. And he has that demeanor.
“It’s like he’s never fazed. I hope he maintains that, because I think that’s what’s allowed him to go in there and blossom.”
Things haven’t gone perfectly. College football coaches rarely consider anything or anyone perfect.
“Once in a while, he’s a little out of balance,” Chaney said. “But he still makes the plays, because he can recover and he’s a big athlete. Ja’Wuan’s going to be a heck of a football player.”
He has plenty of time to get there, too.
Need proof? Just look at his face the next time he takes off his helmet.
“As the weeks go on in practice, as we keep working the film and watching these guys and game planning before we get on the field, it’s slowing down,” James said. “It’s getting a lot easier.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat