Rocky James embraces the pressure, and that's a good move. It's going to hound him this fall anyway.
James faces one of the toughest tasks of any University of Saint Francis football player as the Cougars seek to defend their NAIA national championship.
He'll try to fill the starring role played by Seth Coate, the most prolific receiver in Saint Francis history.
“I can't wait for it,” James said. “I just have a lot to prove. I know that's a big jump for anybody. Seth's gone, so I have to have them believe in me to accomplish that goal.”
Coate produced a phenomenal final season, capping a tremendous career. He caught 83 passes for 1,693 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior. The former Homestead High School standout finished the year with nine catches, 180 yards, three scores and an offensive MVP award in the title game.
The rapport between quarterback Nick Ferrer and Coate was seamless. Ferrer knew where to put the football. Coate knew where to go to catch it. Then they'd meet in the end zone.
Those would be big shoes for anyone to fill, let alone a sophomore.
Ferrer, now a senior, looks at James and sees an overflow of talent waiting to be unleashed when the Cougars open camp on Aug. 14.
“If he reaches his potential, he won't come off the field,” Ferrer said. “The big thing in camp will be getting reps with me and getting on the same page with me, seeing windows and knowing spots I like, and me knowing spots he likes. What placement does he like better than others? It's little timing stuff we have been working on and we have to get better at it.”
Ferrer developed great rapport with Cam Smith when he first took over as the starter and took it further with Coate. The faster Ferrer and James find that connection, the more the Cougars' offense will soar.
“That's the sort of connection we're going to need to have,” Ferrer said. “If we get that, there's no stopping him individually and no stopping us as an offense.”
James, from Xenia, Ohio, caught 14 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns last season, rotating into a veteran receiving corps that also included then-seniors Montay McDowell and Akeim Kelsaw.
His performance last season could be considered a bit of a sneak peak.
“It's not easy to play as a freshman, and he did that,” Ferrer said.
James concurs with the description of it not being easy. He said he was helped and mentored by McDowell as he tried to soak in the jump from high school to college football.
“Last year I was struggling, in my dorm room studying the plays over and over, trying to make sure I didn't mess up,” James said. “My biggest fear was going out there on the field not knowing what I was doing.”
James, whose given name is Ricardo James Jr., looked a bit fragile as a freshman, with only 162 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. He is up to 180 pounds now, with a goal of reaching 187 this season and 200 in the long run. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school with impressive leaping skills.
“Nobody in the country is going to beat him to a jump ball,” Ferrer said. “He's a dunk contest champion-type guy. He can go up and get the ball, so the big thing is improving his strength and consistency of his hands.”
James and the Cougars' other young receivers will benefit from having an experienced quarterback.
This will be Ferrer's third season as a starter. He runs offseason workouts with receivers. He knows the offense inside and out.
He pushes hard, as James learned last season.
“Working with Nick is a pleasure because he's really good,” James said. “He's the type of quarterback that's going to correct me every single day. That might get on my nerves, but it helps me in the long run. I like catching the ball from him and he's really talented. He does get mad at you sometimes, but then he'll pick you right back up again. He expects the best and I give him my best.”
Saint Francis offensive coordinator Patrick Donley said he is looking forward to Ferrer working with and developing James and the other young receivers. The only senior with extensive experience is inside receiver Sean Boswell.
James has the first shot at the front of the line.
“We're anticipating big things from him with his dedication and the way he's improved his strength, for sure,” Donley said. “It was tough to break into that group as a true freshman. We think he's going to take a huge step this season.”
James said he knows there are some older and younger receivers in the program who will be pushing for playing time, too.
He welcomes the pressure.
“We have a ton of receivers and there's going to be a lot of guys going out here battling,” James said. “That's going to push me even more. I have to prove I can outwork them and prove I'm the best on the field.”
For more on Saint Francis football, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at reggiehayes1