James looks to catch some action this fall



By Mike Theodore

With the program’s biggest game in years finally upon the Illini, the closest that Chris James came to helping his team on the field against USC in the Rose Bowl was participating in pregame warm up drills.

James’ season had come to an end before it had even really started after the receiver injured his left knee last fall in the same scrimmage that freshman receiver Arrelious Benn suffered a nagging shoulder injury.

Benn would recover and become Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but James, known as C.J. to his teammates, watched the entire Rose Bowl campaign from the sideline with a torn-up knee. James’ patella tendon was harvested from his right knee and used to replace his left ACL.

“It was real tough but I got through it,” said the sophomore from Chicago. “I kind of wanted to play (in the Rose Bowl), but I knew if I played I wouldn’t have gotten the extra year. It was cool to get the extra year because I’ll be an Illini for three more years, so that’s not bad.”

Surgery and months of rehab later, James is regaining trust in his knee and providing quarterback Juice Williams with another dangerous option. A slot receiver earlier in his career, James has switched to the outside.

In last Saturday’s scrimmage, James caught three passes for 45 yards and hauled in a red-zone touchdown.

“I thought it went good for me,” James said. “After breaking down film I see some little things I need to work on, but there’s always things you have to work on.

“It kind of felt like a spring game a little bit. We kind of got after (it) a little bit. The offense kind of struggled in the beginning, but we picked it up at the end. It was faster than a normal scrimmage.”

With five months remaining before the start of the 2008 season, James assessed his health as somewhere between 90 and 95 percent.

“Towards the end of the scrimmage it was getting a little sore, but every day I get a little sore. But each day I can feel it’s getting a little better,” he said.

As a freshman in 2006, James started the last four games of the season and went for a career-high 52 yards against Northwestern. He finished the season with five catches for an average of 15.2 yards per catch.

“It’s good having him back out there,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “I think Saturday he did some good things, but still there’s a lot of work left to do. He’s got to make sure in the running game he’s being productive as a blocker. Is he running precise, accurate, detailed routes? There’s still lots of nuances in the position he has to continue to get better at.”

And if his dedicated rehab is any indication, James will be ready come Aug. 30 in St. Louis.

“Actually having a guy out there with game experience is big for us,” Locksley said. “And we’re expecting big things out of Chris, but he’s got to go out and do it every day.”