Coming out of high school, James was rated the 18th-best running back prospect by Scout.com and No. 21 by Rivals.com. He rushed for 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, and returned one punt and two kickoffs for touchdowns. He played most of his UM freshman year at fullback, then returned to tailback in 2010, rushing for 398 yards and three touchdowns for a 5.7-yard-per-carry average.
Last year, James played all season with turf toe, but neither complained nor mentioned it to the media. He and Miller dubbed themselves “Smash and Dash,” saying they would each surpass 1,000 yards rushing. Only Miller succeeded. So James, the 2011 UM strength training athlete of the year, vowed to do what made the most sense: get better. He rehabilitated his foot and built his already powerful body into an even sturdier machine. His bench press went from 375 pounds to 400, his squat from 500 to 523 and his power clean from 310 to 320.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said.
With Miller gone, James — who also has good hands — will start the season as the featured back. Close behind: junior Eduardo Clements, freshman phenom Randy Duke Johnson and redshirt freshman Dallas Crawford.
“Mike is faster and more physical than he’s ever been,” UM offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “We’ve always known he takes great pride in how he finishes plays and the passion he plays with, but he is seeing the game really well. His vision has been excellent.”
James’ teammates and coaches say they have been inspired not only by the improvement in his play, but also by his mental toughness and leadership. Clements said the running backs are among the closest of position groups.
“Every day we go in the meeting room and it’s fun,” Clements said. “Duke brings a lot of energy because he’s just like us, down to earth and funny. Dallas, too. In our room, it’s all help. If somebody does something wrong, we help him. If somebody does something right, we applaud him. It’s all love with the running backs.”
When James’ mother died just days before the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, Clements sent a text message to his friend and told him he loved him and was there for him. “He texted me back and said, ‘I love you, too, bro. Thank you.’
“He’s always had an amazing attitude. We’ve been there for each other through everything.”
UM coach Al Golden believes James “has all the tools” to succeed on the field and said that James inspires him. “Extraordinary person,” Golden said. “They say a negative attitude is contagious. I think a positive attitude and someone that brings energy and passion and respect and humility every day like he does can be equally as infectious. He’s a blessing for the Miami program right now.”
James’ sister, who gave birth to Jennifer on July 31, will be at Mike’s first home game Sept. 15 against Bethune-Cookman. Mike’s aunts and uncles will be there, too.
Grieving on the field
People still talk about how James missed his mother’s funeral to play in the 2010 Sun Bowl. Both were at the same time on the same day. Jasmine, closer than ever with Mike, said she completely understood.
“You can’t tell someone how to grieve,” Jasmine said. “Football has allowed him to get back to doing what he loves and what he and my mom did together. It allows him to find some connection.”
A few months later, James explained his decision to play in the bowl game. “I knew the relationship my mom and I had and what she would have wanted me to do,” he said. “And personally, I don’t think I could see her like that for the last time.”
James now has two tattoos on the front of his left biceps, one with a reproduced image of his mother holding him as a child — it says “Mama’s Boy” — and the other of an angel’s wings.
He said the memory of his mother drives him.
“I knew that quitting was not an option,” James said. “She instilled a lot of great things in me — hard work, honesty and loyalty, and that’s what I try to display in everything I do.”