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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : A Backside Compliment : Fresno State Center Jason James Masters New Right-Tackle Position for Good of Team

August 27, 1994|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney was asked what had prompted the move of All-Western Athletic Conference center Jason James to tackle this season, he answered straight from the hip, or at least somewhere near there.

"Our new quarterback (Adrian Claiborne) is left-handed, so we wanted to put our best lineman at right tackle to protect his backside, and nobody's got a bigger backside than Jason," Sweeney said.

Sweeney said James might be the only Bulldog lineman who can adequately handle Ohio State, Fresno State's opponent Monday night in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic at Anaheim Stadium.

"We need Jason at right tackle, left tackle, right guard, left guard and center against the kind of guys we're playing against," Sweeney said. "They're unbelievably strong and can run like hell."

Had Dan (Big Daddy) Wilkinson, the No. 1 draft pick in this year's NFL draft, stayed in school, the Buckeyes would have been even bigger and stronger. But James, 6 feet 5 and 310 pounds, wasn't worried about facing Wilkinson.

"I wanted to play against him," said James, an All-Freeway League lineman his junior and senior years at Buena Park High. "Playing against the best makes you a better player. I was a little upset when I heard he was going pro. The coaches weren't, but I was."

How would James have fared against Wilkinson, a 6-5, 300-pounder who runs a 4.9-second 40-yard dash?

"He would have done well," Sweeney said. "He would have graded about 50%, and that's all you can ask against a guy like that. But like (BYU Coach) LaVell Edwards said, 'Don't worry about Big Daddy, they've got a lot of Big Daddies.' "

Sweeney used to have a couple of nicknames for James, but they weren't anything as complimentary as Big Daddy.

"When he was a freshman, he was like a doughboy," Sweeney said. "He looked like a loaf of bread, a refrigerator with no handle."

But that was during James' redshirt season. In the last three years, James has started 23 games at center, including the '92 Freedom Bowl and '93 Aloha Bowl, for one of college football's most productive offenses. In the last three years, the Bulldogs have ranked first, second and third nationally in total offense.

Last season, James was a unanimous first-team All-WAC center for the third-highest scoring team in college football.

"It was fun because we knew we could do anything we wanted," James said. "We had been together for three years and we ran and threw very effectively. People overlooked the running game, but we could run the ball too."

That is until they faced Colorado in the Aloha Bowl. In a 41-30 loss to the Buffaloes, the Bulldogs amassed all of three yards rushing.

"We had five turnovers and they scored on three of them," James said. "It seemed like someone was letting down on every play."

The potential for disaster also appears high with Ohio State, co-champion of the Big Ten last year. The Bulldogs will start a new offensive line, except for James, and a quarterback who has thrown nine passes.

"I'm awfully concerned about the protection," Sweeney said with a touch of Lou Holtz his voice. " . . . We're in deep."

James, however, isn't as glum as his coach.

"We're young, but we have a lot of talent," he said.

Of all the senior offensive linemen, James is said by many scouting services to be among the best. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. lists James as the fifth-best prospect for the 1995 draft.

James reads the hype and understands its meaning.

"I just have to produce," he said. "If I can make all-league as a tackle, that makes me twice as valuable. I would also be the first in Fresno State history to make All-WAC at two positions."

If he had it his way, James would be going for All-WAC at three positions.

"If I can improve my quickness, I can play guard," he said.

Sweeney said James already has planted that possibility in his mind.

"We talked about playing Jason at guard on the counter trey," Sweeney said. "He said, 'Hey Coach, that would be great.' He said I could put in the tackle trap, too, if I wanted."

So what's a 6-5, 310-pounder doing acting like a guard? Sweeney said the thought of James playing guard isn't that preposterous anymore. In fact, Sweeney said James is even starting to look the part.

"He doesn't have to hold it in anymore," Sweeney said. "He has no gut."

But Sweeney said James does have plenty of guts.

"The one thing Jason has going for him is confidence," he said. "He's got great courage and he's smart."

James said he's smart enough to know that tackles are more visible than centers. Holding is easier for referees to spot on the outside and missed blocks can't be camouflaged as easily.

"I still don't think I'm as quick as I need to be," James said. "I'm still getting used to being by myself. If you mess up at tackle, there's nobody there to help you."

Sweeney isn't expecting James to need much help. He's expecting James to be doing most of the helping.

"He's unquestionably the leader out there," Sweeney said. "He's the pied piper of the offensive line. The young guys follow him all around in practice."

Maybe for this season at least, James will be called Big Daddy too.

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