Hopefully you read the profile of Georgia Tech freshman quarterback James Graham that I posted Tuesday afternoon. He has quite a story to tell about the power and influence that a loving and present grandparent can have.
You may also have read comments from Graham’s coach for his first three seasons at Fitzgerald High, Jason Strickland. I’ll repeat some of them here, but he gave a very strong evaluation of what he saw out of James as his quarterback. (I’ll preface it by saying that no coach is going to say, “That kid was a total waste of my time,” but even still, his comments made an impression.)
I asked him what first came to his mind when he thought about Graham.
“Extremely charismatic and then just crazy dynamic athlete,” said Strickland, now the coach at Pierce County High. “I’ve been doing this thing for 20, 21 years. I’ve been fortunate to be able to coach a lot of good football players. I’ve told people, he’s not the best football player I’ve coached. But he’s the best athlete I’ve ever coached. He just does stuff that, I don’t know, it just kind of makes you shake your head sometimes, figuring out how the human body can do that.”
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As far as his athletic ability, I asked what he meant in particular, i.e., speed, strength, agility, etc.
“All of it,” he said. “Change of direction, jumping, just absolutely, full-speed, wide-open and able to come to a complete stop. He just does things that normal humans can’t do.”
I asked him later particularly about his ability to play quarterback.
“He’s a guy that, obviously, is a tremendous running threat, but he’s got a dynamic arm and he can throw it a country mile,” he said. “He’s still got to work some on his accuracy; he’s gotten better in that area.”
He noted, too, that Graham played exclusively out of the shotgun and will have to learn to play under center. As is the case with many Tech quarterbacks, Graham chose Tech in part because he had the opportunity to play quarterback, as opposed to being recruited as an athlete with little or no chance to play quarterback. However, what sometimes happens is that those players who come to Tech to play quarterback will ultimately switch positions to get a quicker shot at playing time. Christian Campbell, now a safety, comes to mind. Strickland described a player who could well be a contributor should that happen.
He said that, among others, Alabama had recruited him to play defensive back and Miami wanted him as a running back. Strickland said that Graham is open to playing another position, but would prefer quarterback.
“The biggest thing to me is his charisma and how he can get guys around him motivated to play and, obviously, his legs are a difference-maker,” he said.
He touched on his leadership ability a few times. He said that Graham is a “high-character guy” who hates losing more than he likes winning and is not afraid to challenge teammates.
“Losing is something that just doesn’t sit well with him,” Strickland. “He’s going to push those guys around him because he does not like that feeling, and he’s not afraid to kind of get on some guys. My guess is he’ll get there and start feeling his way around to begin with and it’s not going to be long to say, ‘Hey, there’s another way. We’ve got to give a little more.’”
Graham showed his leadership to Purple Hurricane teammates in other ways, too. He was a film junkie. He liked to practice, often asking Strickland to run a play back in practice to make sure he understood it or to see a different look. He hated to be taken out of games. As a junior, Fitzgerald, a Class AA school, was playing Tift County, a Class AAAAAAA school. Graham hurt his ankle early, severely compromising his mobility. With region games coming up, Strickland decided to pull Graham at halftime.
“He just flipped out and just lost his mind and refused to come out of the game,” Strickland said.
He stayed in the game under the caveat that Strickland would take him out if he showed he was protecting the ankle. He nearly led a fourth-quarter comeback in a 35-28 road loss to a team that made the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs.
“He’s just that type of guy,” Strickland said.
There is, of course, no telling how Graham’s career will unfold. After TaQuon Marshall graduates following this season, the competition to replace him will be between Lucas Johnson, Tobias Oliver and Graham. Johnson and Oliver both will have a significant advantage in experience, particularly if either Johnson or Oliver gets on the field this season. (It’s not inconceivable that Graham could work his way onto the depth chart this season as a freshman, but the far more likely possibility is that he will redshirt.)
One last thing: This is more just kind of funny, but does have pertinence to Graham’s readiness for college football. I asked Strickland what Fitzgerald was like. Fitzgerald is a town of about 9,000 and is the county seat of Ben Hill County, which is about halfway between Macon and Valdosta. As Graham’s mother Bridget Daniels put it, you have to drive 25 miles to get a first-run movie theater and even farther to get to a mall. But Strickland said Fitzgerald is “extremely, extremely” passionate about football and unlike anywhere else he’d coached.
“I’ve told folks, I really believe the Atlanta Braves could be playing in the World Series and those people aren’t going to know it,” he said. “Those people aren’t going to have a clue. But they know who the Hurricanes are playing on Friday night. It’s just a great, great place for football.”
What this means for Graham is that, for three years, he played the most important position on a team that his community paid enormous attention to, and managed largely to succeed. (Fitzgerald reached the Class AA state finals in Graham’s sophomore and junior seasons before losing in the first round this past fall.)
Strickland acknowledged that he hasn’t played Clemson in Death Valley or Florida State at Doak Walker Stadium, “but playing in those moments are not going to be something he’s not used to doing. He’s played in big games his whole life.”