AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football’s game on Saturday won’t count in a record book. It was a glorified scrimmage, a first-team vs. second-team matchup that just so happened to have tens of thousands of fans in attendance. For some, the A-Day action didn’t carry much weight.
Paul James III wasn’t one of those people.
The return to televised football in Jordan-Hare Stadium meant more to James than most. The senior defensive end, who made his return to action after a season-ending knee injury last September, couldn’t even sleep.
“I’ve been running plays in my head all night,” James said. “Just to be able to execute and do what I do best, it’s a blessing.”
James showcased those skills again Saturday by taking home the defensive MVP award in Auburn’s annual spring game. The Miami native had 4 tackles — including 3 for loss — and a sack in the first half for the Tigers’ first-choice defense.
“I know (defensive line coach Rodney Garner) has been challenging him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “You can see him improving. One play that really stood out to me was a read zone with [freshman quarterback Malik Willis]. He really baited him into keeping the football, and he came back and just made a really good change-of-direction play.”
The takedown of Willis in the backfield stood out to junior defensive tackle Dontavius Russell, who James would love to join as a starter in 2017.
“He played real well,” Russell said. “He had some real good tackles for loss and even made a play on the zone read, which is hard to do sometimes.”
— Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) April 8, 2017
James hadn’t played in a game for Auburn since late September, when he suffered a major meniscus injury before the Tigers’ matchup against LSU.
When James returned to action in spring practices, he felt like he was an under-the-radar competitor in the race to replace the NFL-bound Carl Lawson at Buck defensive end.
“(A-Day) was a big step for me, because I’ve been mainly in the shadows a lot,” James said. “For me to have the day that I had, it really shows my character. I’ve been through a lot.”
Earlier in the spring, Garner told reporters James “wasn’t 100 percent.” The veteran defensive line coach said he didn’t know if it was a physical or mental issue for James in his comeback from injury.
On Saturday, James said he pushed through that hitch.
“Adversity, it’s a big thing,” James said. “Dealing with coach, he’s going to challenge you. You just have to be able to take that challenge.”
James said he set the tone for what he hopes will be a huge 2017 season for him. He even teased a new pass-rushing move that he didn’t use on his teammates Saturday.
“[My favorite move] would probably be the spin,” James said. “Y’all didn’t get a taste of that today, but it’s coming. It’s coming.”
James will continue to push junior Jeff Holland and sophomore converted linebacker Tre’ Threat for the Buck job this offseason.
His play in an important A-Day game could garner more looks for him as a potential starter. While that is a goal for James, he wants team success even more.
“Of course, I expect to be a starter,” James said. “But mostly, I want to help out my brothers. I want to take them to the next level, and I want them to take me to the next level. Just play as one.”