AUBURN, Ala. — Paul James III gave an unusual introduction when he arrived at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss., in 2015.
The Illinois transfer addressed the team and assured his new teammates he would work tirelessly to help them achieve their goals.
“Before he played a snap, he didn’t even practice that day,” sophomore linebacker Zachary Williams (now at UAB) said of James’ talk. “I knew he was going to play in front of me and be a hard worker and be about his word. And he did that the whole season.”
In one season with the Wolves, James was the most valuable defensive lineman in the Mississippi Association of Community & Junior Colleges (MACJC), amassing 47 tackles and 15 sacks (fifth in the NJCAA).
Since transferring to Auburn in January, James has kept that previous promise with his new set of teammates, proving his work ethic once again. Now he’s shifting his focus to the second half of his guarantee — helping the Tigers reach their full defensive potential.
As the defensive line coach at Copiah-Lincoln, Otis Yelverton has seen many talented players walk through his door. James was different.
“Normally, when you get guys that transfer from Division I schools to JUCOs, they come in with a sense of arrogance or thinking they’re better than the kids that are there,” Yelverton said. “Paul didn’t do that. Paul came in, fit right in with the guys and I think a lot of the younger guys had a chance to see what it’s like to actually play with a guy that’s played Division I and understands the work ethic it takes to play at that level.”
When team practices ended, James kept going. He often made his way to dummies, concentrating on his hand placement or pass-rush moves. Sometimes he went to the weight room. Whatever extra work he chose, he always strived for more.
“You could just see in him that he wanted to be better,” Williams said. “He wanted to be better than everyone else and anyone that doubted him; he really wanted to push forward and show people that he wasn’t a punk or a troublemaker. He wanted to provide for those people back home. He was a real hard worker. He always worked.”
James used his speed and power to win a starting spot at Copiah-Lincoln and evolved as the year progressed. He grew comfortable in the new system, mixed in his own style and picked up speed.
As he trained with Yelverton, James’ pass-rush skills — they already impressed Williams — improved. In a short time, James adopted a leadership role, too, sharing drills and weight-room knowledge.
“He showed me different things I could do to get my game better and it really helped me out and helped me elevate my game,” Williams said. “He helped me push the younger guys to keep playing harder every play. He played every game the hardest, through injury or whatever. He always pushed us as a defense and was a leader.”
Copiah-Lincoln ended the season with a No. 4 national ranking and James was named an NJCAA All-American. Despite his junior college success, the transition to Auburn was not as smooth as he hoped.
After enrolling in January, James had a procedure on his foot that forced him to miss the early part of spring practices before recording a tackle for loss in the A-Day game. As he recovered, James watched Auburn’s talented defensive freshmen from the sideline. That was motivation to quickly get back on the field.
As soon as he was able, James dedicated himself to getting back into playing shape, training after practices and on weekends. James said he lost the 10-15 pounds he gained during his downtime and started to find his place on the defense.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele recognized ways the 6-foot-4 James could help the Tigers. To begin the season, it’s likely James will contribute in passing downs as a pass-rush specialist.
“He has got a skill set that can make him really good,” Steele said. “When he gets it figured out, he has progressively gotten better each day. He studies it. He works at it. He’s not a high-rep guy; he’s a smart football player, so that’s helped him. That’s helped his transition. He’s got better every scrimmage and he’s fun to coach.”
So after two school moves, James wants to prove he can play in the SEC. The only person he thinks can stop him?
“Myself,” James said. “Every day coach tells us you are never going to be the same. You’re either going to get worse or better. I just stick with that momentum and push myself. I feel like if I’m going against the best of the best, when I go out there and I do what I do best, nobody can compete with that.”