It is about 725 miles and, depending on the number of stops, roughly a 12-hour drive from Sarasota, Fla., to Murfreesboro, Tenn.
It is hardly a cross-country junket, but it is not exactly next door. That is why Middle Tennessee receiver Richie James likes to bring a little flavor of home to the gridiron. Specifically, whenever James reaches the end zone, something he has done six times during an eye-opening redshirt freshman season, he likes to arrange his fingers in the shape of an “S” signifying his hometown on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“Being 12 hours away from home you want to represent where you are from no matter what,” he said. “It was something we did at home and I just kind of brought it up here to Tennessee.”
Earlier this season one official, doing his best to be a stick in the mud, warned James he would throw a flag for taunting if he saw the “S” again.
“None of the other refs have said anything to me, he was the only,” said James.
James’ play has been such that there might as well be an “S” on the front of his jersey. After all, he has scaled considerable heights in what has been a super season. The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder heads into Saturday’s game against visiting North Texas tops among freshmen and third in the nation overall with 82 receptions. His 1,037 yards lead all freshmen and is good for 11th nationally.
“It means a lot,” he said of his lofty production. “But I give all the credit to my offensive linemen, Brent for doing a great job feeding me the ball and especially the coaching staff for designing plays for me to succeed.”
James was referring to quarterback and fellow redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill, son of Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill. The lefty is having an impressive season in his own right throwing for 3,099 yards and 23 touchdowns, both school records.
“We have a really good relationship,” said James, who was also a track star in high school at Sarasota Riverview. “All summer I worked with him and we took the time to get a connection going between us. It has worked out real well.”
While Stockstill may not have been able to project how potent a connection he and James have become, he knew James had the ingredients to be an impact player.
“He is one of the hardest workers I know,” he said. “He is one of the best athletes I have been around. He is awesome to play with and he makes my job easy. I don’t know if there is anybody in the country that can guard him. I think he is that good.”
It did seem as though nobody was guarding James last week during what was a sort of homecoming. The Blue Raiders traveled to Boca Raton, less than a four-hour drive for James’ family, to take on Conference USA foe Florida Atlantic.
James scored a pair of touchdowns on a day he totaled nine receptions for a career-high 198 yards. His 62-yard touchdown with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter was the difference in a 24-17 win. By then his throng of supporters was well versed on his big-play ability as he scored on a 69-yarder midway through the opening quarter.
“There were about 40 people there and it was like I had my own little section,” said James, whose parents, four younger siblings, relatives and high school coaches were among those on hand. “I was very grateful that my parents could see me play and I actually had one of my best games. I was very excited when I knew they were going to make the trip.”
James, who was not recruited by any of the Florida schools, appeared to be on his way to Georgia Southern. However, when Golden Eagles coach Jeff Monken accepted the head job at Army following the 2013 season, James switched his allegiance to Middle Tennessee, which had stayed in touch with him all along.
A quarterback his senior year of high school after playing his first three seasons at receiver, James switched back to receiver at Middle Tennessee last year in what was a redshirt season that proved critical in his development.
“It gave me some time to figure out the game speed,” he said. “I was able to get stronger, faster and a little bigger to prepare for this year. Coming into this season I knew I would get a lot of playing time, get some experience and learn the game as good as I can.”
A glance at the nation’s leading receivers is confirmation James has aced the learning curve.