Travis James was in the clear — or so he thought.
Thinking he avoided being tripped up by the last player any kick returner wants to be stopped by — the kicker — James eyed the end zone. The Tennessee State junior didn’t get there.
Jackson State’s Ryan Griffin snuck up from behind and took down James at the 26-yard line after a 66-yard return, which set up a field goal.
“I was close,” James said. “It was another dude ... while I was going past the kicker. He was hustling.”
The tackle might have kept James from scoring a 92-yard touchdown, which would have been his first on a kickoff return, but it didn’t slow him down in TSU’s 33-29 loss Saturday in the Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis. The native of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., finished with 227 all-purpose yards — the fifth-most in a Football Championship Subdivision game this season — and he did so on just seven touches.
In addition to returning four kickoffs for 111 yards, he caught three passes for 116 yards, including one that went 54 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
James was named the Ohio Valley Conference’s Co-Specialist of the Week, sharing honors with Eastern Kentucky’s Jeremy Caldwell.
“He has some uncanny ability when it comes to returning kicks,” Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said of James. “We think he has the capability to do that week-in and week-out. If everybody else does their job up front — they create creases — he has that ability [to score].”
Heading into Saturday’s OVC opener at Murray State, James leads the Tigers (1-1) in return yards (159), receiving yards (146) and receiving touchdowns (two).
Reed describes James as a player with a “real high football IQ” who doesn’t necessarily have blazing speed. But that hasn’t hampered the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder during the last two seasons, which included several “nagging injuries.” In 20 games and 11 starts, he has caught 37 passes for 439 yards.
“He is more of a 4.5 [seconds] type guy [in the 40-yard dash] but he can find those holes and get through,” Reed said. “He is gifted with good hands. He may not be the fastest guy in the world to burn a 4.4 kid, but he knows how to get open and he knows where the dead spots in the zones are.”
Reed believes James is healthier and stronger — perhaps a beneficiary of spending his first summer at TSU, lifting in the weight room and participating on the field in 7-on-7 drills with his teammates.
“A lot of that [success] is attributed to [assistant strength coach Alvin] Futrell and our guys in the weight room but also to him for making himself available to be here this summer to work on his craft,” Reed said. “He is starting to become a more consistent threat right now in the kicking game as well as on offense.”
When returning kicks, James say he has to keep it simple — “We call it the “catch and run,” he said. He insists that it comes down to just following blocks and not getting too fancy with jukes and cuts. Of course, some situations call for improvisation.
Against Southern in the season opener, James saw a road block so he reversed sides and gained 43 yards.
“Our mindset is if you make a move, you mess up the whole return,” he said. “The only move you should be making is on the kicker.”
And sometimes even that isn’t enough.
“Man, it bothers me a lot because I know I can do it,” James said of returning a kick for a touchdown. “I just got to get my other teammates to help me out because I can’t do it without them.”