A big congratulations to Ja'Wuan James, drafted by the Miami Dolphins last night with the 19th overall pick. James played 49 games at Tennessee and started every single one of them, from a freshman protecting Matt Simms and Tyler Bray to a senior leader in Butch Jones' first season. His teams may not go down in Tennessee lore due to their won/loss record, but his steady presence and productivity earned him a spot on the draft's first night.
Tiny Richardson, who could be the next of four Vol offensive linemen taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, got more hype during the 2013 season playing the vaunted left tackle position and going against the likes of Jadeveon Clowney. But James was always the leader of one of the most talented offensive lines in Tennessee history, and scouts clearly pegged him as the best prospect.
As a freshman in 2010 James was part of an offensive line that gave up 41 sacks, 116th out of 120 teams in college football. But as a junior many of the pieces on that same line gave up just eight sacks on 477 passing attempts, third nationally and ten sacks fewer than anyone else in the SEC. The line was a big part of Tennessee's high-octane offense in 2012, which finished 18th nationally in total yards, 19th in yards per play, and threatened several school records. James becomes the fifth Vol starter selected from that 2012 offense, with more to come this weekend, which will only add to the frustration of a 5-7 finish with so much talent under Derek Dooley's watch.
Also of note is the way James and the offensive line switched gears from the Jim Chaney/Tyler Bray scoring machine to the Mike Bajakian/Justin Worley/Josh Dobbs fast-but-not-too-fast-we're-all-new-here offense last fall, and despite having zero proven threats at wide receiver and mostly youth and inexperience at quarterback, the Vol offensive line still allowed only 15 sacks last season, 12th best in the nation. The line was able to change gears and still lead this team to great productivity against Georgia and an upset win over South Carolina.
James certainly benefited from playing with great talent around him, but he was arguably the best of that talent. His longevity and production at Tennessee hopefully foreshadow a long and productive career in the NFL. He is as proven as an offensive lineman can be going to the NFL, a very reliable choice for the Dolphins in round one.
In the draft's modern format the Vols have only had three linemen taken in the same year once, in 1996, and two of those were chosen in the seventh round. So barring any surprises this should have a chance to be a historic weekend for Tennessee if Tiny Richardson, Zach Fulton, and James Stone join James in hearing their names called. If that happens and Rajion Neal is also selected, the 2012 offense will have eight of its starters taken in the last two years. Factor in the presence of Tyler Bray, and it will again become clear what Tennessee had on that side of the ball two years ago.
But this weekend is about looking forward more than looking back; the Vols feel much better with Butch Jones than Derek Dooley, and I think the Dolphins are going to feel very good about Ja'Wuan James for a long time.