December 26, 2013 10:14:28 AM
STARKVILLE -- According to all physical and mental indicators, Nick James is taking full advantage of his redshirt opportunity.
After playing in eight games in his first season with the Mississippi State football team, the sophomore defensive tackle from Long Beach suffered physical and personal issues that forced him to redshirt. MSU coach Dan Mullen said after the season-opening loss to Oklahoma State in Houston that James, a former four-star prospect, likely wouldn't be on the active roster all season.
"He's really working hard in school and working hard to take care of things the right way," Mullen said. "He has a long way to go, but he's certainly headed in the right direction."
James continues to work as MSU (6-6) prepares for its game against Rice (10-3) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31 (ESPN). The 330-pounder looked slimmer in the first week of bowl practice than he did in all of fall camp and was more energized in individual and 7-on-7 drills.
"How about Nick James being able to only go two or three plays earlier this season and then being done, but look at him now," MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. "He went through a 60-play scrimmage situation and was physically fine afterward."
Six weeks into the season, Mullen re-affirmed James would be redshirted and said he was doing a "great" job positioning himself to compete for playing time on the 2014 team.
After making six tackles as a freshman, James struggled to maintain consistency if he was on the field for more than three plays. In fall camp, he was unable to work his way off the third-team defensive unit. The frustration boiled over and caused him to get into fights during practice.
Now, though, James is in better shape and he is maturing thanks to the constant prodding of strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis.
"I think he's starting to mature, which is good," MSU defensive line coach David Turner said. "He understands the situation he's in -- he put himself in -- and he can work himself out. He's still got a ways to go, but he's starting to takes some steps in the right direction."
Early in bowl practice, freshman defensive lineman Chris Jones was on the same line as James. Jones couldn't help but look forward to the Bulldogs' projected strength on the defensive line next season.
"We got Nick and others coming back to dominate, and I think we're going to have one of the better units in the conference," Jones said. "Then, of course, I'm moving back to end, so that'll be great, too. Hopefully I don't have to run more for saying that, but I've been waiting on that for so long."
Sophomore defensive tackles James and Quay Evans were thought to be the ideal duo when MSU signed them as part of the 2012 recruiting class, but Evans isn't with MSU for bowl practice following his arrest for driving without a license and a violation of a traffic control device in October. Evans was rated the top prospect in the state of Mississippi among all positions by several recruiting services. The 310-pounder chose MSU over Auburn, Southern California, Florida State, LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss. He was a member of the third-string defense when he arrived in Starkville.
While Evans had seven tackles, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in 10 games as a freshman, he had one solo tackle, two assisted tackles, and one tackle for loss in five games this season.
In August, Evans was cited for driving without a license and a seat belt violation. He was charged and fined $426 on Aug. 8.
In addition to being suspended for the team's opener against Oklahoma State, Evans was suspended for MSU's game against Kentucky.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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