A running back without five dependable offensive linemen blocking in front of him is like a target in a shooting gallery.
Ask Chris James.
Without his offensive line--"the bulldozers," he calls them--Notre Dame's 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior bulldozer wouldn't be what he is, one of the most prolific and explosive and durable ball-carriers in the state.
"Once I knew I would have to rely on them, we built a bond," James said. "They were more excited to block for me this season. We talk to each other in the hallways and on Facebook. We have a tight relationship."
The "bulldozers" 6-foot-2, 226-pound senior left tackle Sean Nicholson, 5-foot-10, 240-pound senior left guard Mike Maligranda, 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior center Bob DeLeonardis, 6-foot-4, 260-pound right guard Nick Bargione and 6-foot-1, 250-pound junior right tackle Mike Mulcrone.
His favorite play is "42 follow," in which he lines up seven yards deep in an I formation and follows 5-11, 215-pound junior fullback Tom Sora between Bargione and Mulcrone on the right side of the line. "It's always open," James said.
With them paving the way, James has rushed 277 times for 1,910 yards and 27 touchdowns for the 7-4 Dons. He has fumbled only twice. In the opening game of the Class 7A playoff, he set a school record by carrying 47 times for 327 yards and seven touchdowns in a 46-27 victory over Grayslake North.
Last Friday, James powered for 164 yards on nine carries and scored two touchdowns, including a 61-yarder, as Notre Dame trounced Steinmetz 35-8. After building a 35-0 halftime lead, James rushed only three times in the third quarter before taking the rest of the night off.
The Dons, who have qualified for the quarterfinals for the first time since 1997, will host Lake Forest (8-3) on Friday in Niles.
College recruiters are taking notice. James has no offers but he has attracted considerable interest from Arkansas, Oregon, Wisconsin, Duke, Ohio State and Purdue.
"Arkansas is my dream school," he said. "I visited there in the off-season. They've been my top school since then. I liked the atmosphere, how they take football so seriously."
Michael Hennessey said what separates James from other running backs is "he has explosiveness and a twitch to his step that he can ignite a long run at any point in time," coach Mike Hennessey said. "He has great 50-60 yard runs straight up and down. Once he gets by a linebacker, the defensive backs are lost trying to catch him."
Hennessey, in his 26th year as head coach at the Niles school, said he could recall only two other running backs who reminded him of James--St. Rita's Billy Marek and Gordon Tech's Leroy Foster. And that covers more than
"He is head and shoulders above any running back we have had," Hennessey said. "He is bigger and just as explosive as Foster. Marek was a slasher, not a bulldozer like James. I wouldn't trade Chris for any running back in our league (including Joliet Catholic's more celebrated Ty Isaac)."
James has his own comparisons. Originally, he wanted to wear jersey number 25 because he is a big Reggie Bush fan coming into high school. But friends and teammates compare his style to former Alabama star Trent Richardson, now with the Cleveland Browns, so he opted for number 3.
"My style is comparable to Richardson," James said. "I'm smart, explosive, elusive, strong and durable. And I have size. I still make something happen even if nothing is there."
He stumbled only once, in a 21-6 loss to Nazareth in Week 6. He was limited to only 33 yards in 16 carries. "He got bottled up. The defense took away a lot of things. They blitzed their linebackers a lot and took away our emphasis on the line of scrimmage," Hennessey said.
But the Dons have bounced back. "We've worked our butts off for so long. We're determined to be the best team that coach Hennessey has seen in a long time. We're really motivated," James said.
A year ago, James split carries with senior Connor Garvin, now at Northern Illinois. To prepare for the 2012 season, he added 15 pounds, reduced his speed from 4.5 to 4.43 seconds for 40 yards, engaged in speed training and weight training.
"I knew I had to be durable. I knew the team would need me," he said. "I wasn't patient last year. Now I see how the blocks are set up and I see the hole and explode through it."
After starting 4-1, Notre Dame lost to Nazareth and Marist to fall to 4-3. But the Dons defeated Joliet Catholic 42-33, marking their first victory over the perennial state power in 23 years.
"That was a turning point. It was a very lifting thing to beat Joliet Catholic," Hennessey said. "They are the mark of excellence in our conference. It wasn't just another game. It was a big game in the season, a steppingstone. Our kids have been resilient and able to fight back."