Darius James just wants to eat. After all, at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, the Harker Heights senior lineman has a lot of reason to be hungry.
Having missed all but 1½ games of his senior season with a foot injury and traveling more than 1,100 miles in his first-ever flight — where the seats were too small — the nation’s No. 1-rated center according to ESPN.com is just ready to load up, be it at the dinner table or on the field.
James is one of nearly 100 Football Bowl Subdivision college prospects that have spent the last few days taking in the sun and sights of Central Florida in preparation for today’s sixth annual Under Armour All-American Game.
“It’s been amazing, going against top talent and meeting new people, it’s been great,” James said. “Just to make it has been a good feeling.”
The game, which is widely considered to draw most of the nation’s elite players, is set to kick off at 4 p.m. today from Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and will be aired nationally on ESPN.
“I’m just trying to treat it like a camp or something like that, just going out trying to show that you’re as good as everybody else,” James said.
Humble and unassuming by nature, James joked his biggest challenge this week has been trying to find a place to use his Under Armour-issued meal card, given all the amenities to be found around Orlando.
“They gave us a meal card with like $30 on it but everywhere you go it’s like $35 to get something to eat,” James said.
Despite being listed as a center, James is getting the start at tackle for the Black Team, otherwise known as Team Highlight. His versatility could allow Highlight head coach Herm Edwards, now an ESPN analyst after head coaching stints with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, to move him around during the game.
James’ main job will be blocking for future Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, widely considered the No. 1 quarterback in the country, Florida running back commit Kelvin Taylor of Belle Glade, Fla., and undeclared four-star tailback Alvin Kamara of Norcross, Ga.
Also playing for Team Highlight is versatile DeSoto tailback Dontre Wilson, who combined for six touchdowns three different ways in a 62-15 bi-district shellacking of the Knights (4-7) in the team’s first playoff appearance since 2006.
“The hardest part is probably getting over your fear and looking past their name and just thinking it’s another player, because they’re not just another player,” James said, “but other than that there hasn’t been anything really hard.”
One of James’ biggest battles so far this week was facing off against 6-foot-5, 275-pound Grayson (Ga.) defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s consensus No. 1 overall prospect.
With both playing on Team Highlight, the pair have had several one-on-one run ins at practice, including James’ much-ballyhooed pancake block of Nkemdiche.
The country’s top player regardless of position certainly made a few of his own plays on James, even working in a strong swim move inside for a sack that drew a big chest-bump from former top overall NFL draft pick LaVar Arrington of Penn State fame.
“It’s been great to know where you match up with the No. 1 player in the country,” James said. “It’s real tight. It’s been a learning experience.”
In today’s game, James is pegged with holding off elite defensive pass rushers such as Auburn-committed defensive end Carl Lawson of Alpharetta, Ga. and a pair of highly recruited uncommitted prospects in five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams of Vienna, Ga. and inside linebacker Reuben Foster of Auburn, Ala., all three of whom are rated at the top of their respective positions.
“It’s good because here you get to separate yourself from being the best of the best of the best,” James said.
Along with daily practices at the ESPN Wide World of Sports athletic complex, James and the other top prospects have been able to enjoy the warm Florida weather while also taking in some of the local attractions. They took visits to Universal Studios and the EA Sports/Tiburon studio in Orlando where the much-loved video game franchises Madden and NCAA Football are developed.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though, as players also participated in a community service project where they helped build a football field in one of the local communities.
“It was pretty tight to help other people by doing something, the community service project was real cool,” James said.