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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Playmaker grows on Gators
UF wasn't sure Brandon James was big enough. Then the Gators saw him in action.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 22, 2006
GAINESVILLE - Florida linebacker Brandon Siler had heard about the speedy recruit who had just arrived on campus. A running back from St. Augustine, he allegedly had an uncanny ability to make defenders miss and get through open holes.
Always looking for any opportunity to improve, Siler sought out the freshman in July, told him to meet at the practice field for some individual work. No pads, just line up and run at each other in individual tackle drills. Siler quickly discovered why there was so much hype surrounding Brandon James.
"He'd shake me - a lot," Siler said. "I would keep taking him out there while nobody is watching, take him out there because if he was shaking me, I wanted to get better at it. I'd make him put in extra time because I wanted to put in extra time and get better."
If you saw James walking off the practice field and he wasn't wearing a jersey, you might wonder if he was a player's little brother here for a visit. If you're taller than 5 feet 3, you might try to stand near him to figure how just how tall he really is.
But if you saw him returning punts in front of more than 100,000 fans in Knoxville Saturday night, the one thing you wouldn't question is his ability.
With less than an hour's notice, James stepped into the starting punt returner's role against Tennessee and returned four for 65 yards (13 average). On his first punt return in a college game, he broke a 35-yard run and the only thing that kept him out of the end zone was Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt's quick thinking - he stuck out his legs and tripped James. It was the longest return in 50 games for the Gators.
James also had an 85-yard return for a touchdown that was called back because of a block-in-the-back penalty.
"I've been telling Coach about Brandon James since he got here in the summer," Siler said. "I knew what Brandon could do. Once we saw him back there (Saturday night), I was like, 'Come on get up, ya'll, let's watch him.' Every time he touches the ball back there, we know he's capable of making a big play."
Not bad for the kid who's somewhere around 5 feet 6½ and has been battling skeptics all his life.
"My whole career pretty much people have been telling me you're not going to be able to play at a big college because of your size," said James, who is listed as 5-7 on the roster. "I just used it as motivation and use it as an edge to try to get better every day."
At one time or another, everyone has questioned his size. When Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison began recruiting James, coach Urban Meyer wasn't sold at all.
Why, you ask?
"He's 4-foot-3 or something," Meyer quipped.
So while Mattison and St. Augustine High coach Joey Wiles were selling James off the field, he was making his case on the field. He rushed for 900 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior, helping St. Augustine High to its first Class 3A state title. And then there were those returns.
"I don't know the number for my whole career, but my senior year I took back four or five (for touchdowns)," James said.
Meyer is thrilled he offered that scholarship.
"It (his performance against the Vols) says his high school coach was right and Greg Mattison was right," Meyer said. "I questioned them. I challenged them on that January day. They said, 'You've got to take him. You have to, you have to, you have to. Watch the return game, you have to take him.' "
James was on track to start in the season opener, earning praise from Meyer throughout the preseason. But a knee injury and subsequent surgery on Aug. 22 was supposed to sideline him for several weeks. His earlier than expected return has been a bonus, but he took over the job held by his friend and teammate Reggie Nelson, who was prepping him on coverages shortly before the UT game began.
"He took my job; that's messed up," Nelson said, joking, while predicting James would return at least three or four punts for touchdowns this season. "I love watching Brandon. He showed what he has this week. His number got called and he showed up. That's what we expect out of the freshmen. My hat goes off to him."
James is quick to spread credit for his early success.
"It's instinct and good scheme by your coaches," he said. "It's the scheme and the blocking you have in front of you. Once I get the ball, I kind of just try to find the second level really. I don't too much worry about the guys coming up close right in front of me because I feel I have the ability to make the first people miss. So I'm looking for the second wave and looking for the setup blocks from my teammates."
For now, he's satisfied being known as the short, but very effective Florida punt returner.
"He's played one game here, but I can't wait until Saturday (to see him play again)," Meyer said.