Chris James is from Ellijay, Ga., a town of about 1,700 residents up in the north Georgia foothills, northeast of Atlanta. His college career has had just as many twists, forks and hairpin turns as those roads in the foothills and trout streams that are prevalent up there. Maybe that’s what prepared him.
He figured, if you’re going to travel, you might as well admire the scenery and smile while you’re along for the ride.
When it came time to head to college — many years before his current stop at Chattanooga — the then quarterback headed to Division II national powerhouse Valdosta State in the southern part of the Peach State. It was 2015, to be exact.
After spending 2015 as a redshirt at Valdosta State, he opted to try the junior college route — heading west to Kansas to play at Hutchinson Community College. And, well, he didn’t play a whole lot there either. Four total games, to be precise. When that show “Last Chance U.” featured the Kansas Jayhawk Conference, the name of the show summed up what James was thinking after 2017 wrapped.
“I had left and finished up school there and I was on my way home without an offer,” James recounted, when asked about the experience by HERO Sports this week. “I thought it might have been the last football I’d ever play, my last chance to play. Then I got a call from Chattanooga on the ride home.”
The call was an invitation from the Mocs’ staff to come throw at Ridgeland HS in Rossville, Ga. — the next day. So he finished his drive home around 2 a.m., he estimates. Then he got as much sleep as he could, woke up at 4:30 a.m. and made the workout. It was an opportunity that is still paying dividends.
But not at the quarterback position, that’s part of that winding career path, the hairpin turn variety.
With Nick Tiano firmly entrenched as the starter since coming over from Mississippi State, and other stellar signal callers on the roster, what head coach Rusty Wright and his staff saw was an incredibly talented athlete at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds … and there was no way Wright wanted James standing next to him during games. So last spring, the move was made, from quarterback to tight end.
James was a successful Wing-T quarterback (1,300 yards passing, 500 rushing senior year, 24 total TDs) at Gilmer HS, but the Wing-T doesn’t always translate well to big-time success at the Division I ranks. But being a big guy who can move? Yeah, that translates well in all forms of football vernacular.
“We were thin on numbers, and we knew we had to get him on the field,” Wright told HERO Sports. “Chris wasn’t a bad quarterback … but he was not going to play much with Nick here. I think we were doing routes on air, and we asked him to get in there and line up in the slot. It I had been a really smart coach I would have switched him way earlier than that. He has really embraced that role, and become a more physical guy who learned how to block.”
Coming into this strange COVID-19 infused year, James was named a HERO Sports Preseason All American and he’ll line up this weekend against FBS Western Kentucky with his teammates, and also tackle a full Southern Conference slate in the spring — one that was just announced this week. This is his NCAA-granted sixth year of eligibility, and he’s going to grab this opportunity with the Mocs by its wings and make the best of it.
“One word I’d use is ‘bumpy’, because it wasn’t very easy getting to Chattanooga, but I’m glad I did,” James continued. “When it comes to me, my mom likes to use the word ‘relentless’, because ever since I was little I’ve been relentless.”
In 2019, his first two career catches as a tight end came up at Rocky Top against the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers. His first touchdown catch came a week later against FCS powerhouse James Madison. Then he proceeded to catch six more touchdowns in SoCon competition, helping taking the heat off of Tiano and his top target, Bryce Nunnelly. Also, a solid run game developed behind the line and stud underclassman Ailym Ford. A lot of that talent is back — in fact, 19 returning players started a game in the past for Chattanooga.
James will be a big part of that, starting this weekend and continuing through the spring.
“Chris is a great guy and teammate. He has made the transition from QB to TE look easy,” Nunnelly told HERO Sports. “He works hard every day and really cares about the team and everyone on it. He has opened up the passing game for us and only made us better with his ability to make plays in both the passing and running game.”
In a few weeks, he might get a quick break to fish some on the Toccoa River, or take a ride on an ATV on his family’s property. All of that will come with time, but for now, he’s fired up about this weekend’s game against the Hilltoppers, and the chance to win a SoCon title in the spring. He’s going to squeeze every single drop out of this time.
That’s how he rolls.
“I plan on exhausting all of my eligibility,” James joked.