In the days leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, few knew who GM Dennis Hickey and Head Coach Joe Philbin had in mind to select for the Miami Dolphins with the 19th overall pick. Shortly after 10 p.m. on the night of May 8, fans and media alike finally got their answer: offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James from the University of Tennessee.
The former 4-star recruit from SuWanee, Georgia was the highest selected Volunteer offensive lineman since 1991, started a record 49 consecutive games for the University of Tennessee, and is expected to anchor the right side of a Dolphins offensive line experiencing major overhaul from a season ago. However, James hasn’t always been an offensive lineman. In fact, up until his junior year of high school, James was a tight end, until one practice, when former O-line coach Charles Allen stepped in and changed the course of James’ life forever.
On Monday, Allen joined The Finsiders to discuss his experience coaching James throughout high school. He discussed the moment he knew the transition to tackle was inevitable and the conversation he and James had the morning after he was drafted.
Growing up, James modeled himself after former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler and pursued the dream of playing the position all through 8th, 9th, and 10th grade. However, entering his junior year, James began to realize that didn’t have the speed or the hands to play the tight end position, as did his coach, and that’s when the two decided to try something different.
“Just watching Ja’Wuan in practice it was apparent that anything that he really wanted to be, he would have been good at it,” said Allen. “Being a gigantor like he is, we didn’t really close our tight end much, so watching him move around there and seeing him play in space we thought lets try him out at tackle and see how good he is. After about two days of that it was apparent that JJ could play the tackle position and could really excel at it.”
James did excel at it, telling The Finsiders that he hasn’t missed a game since making the switch nearly five years ago. However, while it may seem like a seamless transition now, at the time, the change didn’t come without its bumps in the road.
“Coming in playing a skill position, it can be difficult to move from there to an offensive line position because you have to get five guys all on the same page, doing the same thing, all at the same time,” said Allen. “There was a little bit of a growing pain there, going from the ‘I don’t know stage,’ to the ‘I think I know stage,’ to the ‘I think I got this, I think I can be really good at it stage.’ All of those things happened very quickly for him. He’s a very, very talented young man.”
One of James’ biggest talents is blocking out in space, which is something he’ll be doing a lot of in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor‘s spread offense. This is something Allen noticed early on, pointing to James’ unique ability to utilize both his quick feet and strong balance in the open field.
“We used to put him out in screens a lot, and I guess it was the second day we threw a little wide receiver screen at him and I told him to set and go block the corner,” said Allen. “Just watching him move out there, it was very natural to him. He has great feet, he has great body balance, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s really, really good at setting up on linebackers and secondary players.”
To this day Allen still keeps in touch with his former tight end turned offensive lineman. In fact, their most recent conversation came the day after James was selected 19th overall by the Dolphins. According to the newly signed rookie, coach Allen was one of the first people he called that morning.
“It was very congratulatory,” Allen said. “It was, ‘coach, I really appreciate all the work you’ve put in,’ and on the other side it was, ‘Ja’Wuan, I’m so proud of the effort that you’ve put in to make yourself into the 19th pick in the draft.’ I was a small step on his journey. He decided that he wanted to be great in high school, and that’s what it’s all about. He decided that he wanted to do that, and he did it. I just wanted to make sure that he knew how proud I was of all his work, and, at the same time, at his resolve for wanting to become a great football player.”
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