PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Paul James is back gaining yards for Rutgers.
A year after a lower leg injury sidelined him for four games and likely deprived him of a 1,000-yard season, the Scarlet Knights halfback rushed 29 times for 173 yards and three touchdowns in Rutgers' 41-38 win over Washington State on Thursday night.
"It was a big day, but I'm not really focused on that now. It was in the past," James said. "I'm trying to focus on Howard right now and have a great game and put it behind me and focus on the next team."
However, the guys who pave the way for James have high hopes for him and the running game this season.
"The run game could be one for the history books," right guard Chris Muller said.
That's a sentiment felt by the entire offensive line, which is well aware that the running game will be key when Rutgers makes its debut in the Big Ten Conference.
"That's what we're aiming for, to be honest with you," left tackle Keith Lumpkin said. "That's what we're focusing on — to have one of the best running attacks in the history of the school."
There's a reason the unit that's opening up the rushing lanes for James exudes such confidence. The Scarlet Knights return all five starters on the line, along with fullback Michael Burton, who coach Kyle Flood said "blocks at an elite level."
So when the holes open, James hits them. Then when the defense closes in, the redshirt junior bounces off would-be tacklers.
Much of James' yardage against the Cougars came after contact. James said breaking tackles just comes naturally to him.
"I guess growing up with older brothers playing football you're kind of the little guy so you have to try and break tackles with the older guys and it just kind of developed with me," said the former walk-on, who opened last season with a 182-yard effort against Fresno State. "And then in high school going to a Group I school, our offensive line wasn't too big. So I'd kind of see a lot of guys in the backfield, and it's a developed habit."
At 6-foot, 205 pounds, James isn't a bruiser. But his speed makes up for it.
"I feel like they underestimate it. They come up and just try and reach an arm out and I can just run right through it," James said.
He's got a knack for the big play. James had four runs of at least 50-yards last year, all in the first four games. It's a feat Rutgers' best running back, Ray Rice, never accomplished. It's one James could top this season after a 56-yard run in the season opener.
When James went down in the win against Arkansas in the fourth game last season, he had 573 total yards and 143.3 yard average — third best in the nation.
While he returned for the final five games of the year, he didn't seem to hit his stride again until the regular-season finale against South Florida, when he ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
James said he wasn't sure if he's faster than last year, but his teammates think so.
"Once he hits the second level, it's catch him if you can," Lumpkin said. "You can tell he gained that extra gear he really needed. Not saying that he was slow last year, but you can see he got a lot stronger, he runs harder and now he's got that oomph he needs."