Not even Nick James recognizes his transformation from four years ago.
The Long Beach High School standout was recruited by teams around the country and carried a four-star rating but baggage came with it. James was dismissed from the Bearcats team at the end of the regular season his senior year and his attitude was a concern for coaches.
He came to Mississippi State out of shape and pushing 330 pounds in his 6-foot-6 frame. Coach Dan Mullen still needed James’ body on the field and hoped that things would click for him at midseason. He made six tackles in eight games in 2012. With development and a year in the weight room, his future looked bright.
Before the 2013 season, James was disciplined for a year, sat out his sophomore season and redshirted. A year later, he came back a changed person. Now he’s the anchor in the middle of MSU’s talented defensive line and one of the team’s senior leaders.
“I used to be a body-in-the-gap guy and just went up the field. Now it’s just technique and experience and using that,” James said. “I was big-headed and selfish and now I’m a team guy. I know what the defense is doing so now it’s me just executing better.”
James started 10 of the Bulldogs’ 13 games in 2015, taking on double teams and opening up the outside for defensive linemen A.J. Jefferson and Jonathan Calvin. The move from his traditional three technique in the 4-3 defense to nose tackle in the 3-4 makes James a more dangerous player.
“It’s been wonderful. I feel dominant in there,” James said. “Even when I played three technique, I got double-teamed a lot and now it’s more close up and I have a quick release being closer to the ball. I’m catching myself using powerful moves and doing things that I’m good at instead of running around blocks.”
James is in the best shape of his career. He’s trimmed down to 320 pounds. He’s also improved his technique under the direction of new defensive line coach Brian Baker.
“He shocked me with so much stuff in the spring,” James said. “He came in here to camp and taught me how to use my power, my athleticism and leadership skills.
“I started using my hands in the spring and Coach (David) Turner left us with that. Coach Baker kind of re-did that. Now I’m starting to realize how powerful I really am when I use my hands.”
The Bulldogs lost all of their defensive coaching staff from a year ago, including defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. On the defensive line, Chris Jones left early for the NFL and now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.
James is looking forward to the season.
“I’m ready to attack this season and let the nation know what the defensive line can do,” James said. “The nation is going to see. It’s going to be different. We’ve got a great D-line.”