Check out Jonesboro DT Kali James’ highlight video:
By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — If you want to do Kali James a favor, just keep sleeping on him.
It helps him keep that chip he plays with firmly on his shoulder.
Everywhere you go and everyone you talk to who has seen the rising senior defensive tackle play calls him one of the best in the state.
He’s gotten accolades from teammates like star Jonesboro offensive lineman Jeff Taylor.
“Kali is a special guy, and a good player,” said Taylor who gets the privilege of lining up against him daily at practice. “We compete against each other every day, and I know it makes us both better every day. He is a competitor.”
He’s received praise from his coaches.
“Kali is definitely one of the top defensive tackles in the state,” said Jonesboro head coach Tim Floyd.
He gets rave reviews from outside trainers — like Willie Whitehead — who have enjoyed long NFL careers and are experts at recognizing top talent.
“I’ve been training Kali for about six months now, and he’s a tremendous talent,” said Whitehead, a former Auburn star who spend eight seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. “I would say Kali is just as good as anybody I’ve worked with.”
That’s saying a lot, considering the fact that Whitehead, through his Expo Athletic Training group, regularly works with some of the top offensive and defensive linemen in the Southeast.
Guys like Charles Wiley, the four-star Stockbridge talent who recently committed to Ole Miss. Or 6-foot-5, 315 pound five-star DT Julian Rochester out of McEachern, whose current top five schools list consists of Georgia, Auburn, Clemson, Louisville and Alabama.
“Kali more than holds his own with all of those guys,” Whitehead said. “I rate him on the same level as any of the rest of those guys.”
And Wiley, a childhood friend of James, said he even tries to put in a good word for his buddy whenever he gets the ear of a big time college coach.
“I’ve known Kali forever,” Wiley said. “We played recreation football together, and I can tell you he’s a very explosive guy. People are gonna say what they want. He’s undersized, whatever. But he’s gonna give you three times more effort than a guy twice his size. I’m always telling people, ‘Hey, go look at his film. This dude’s a great player.”
Yes, James gets lots of love from those who know him and have seen his talent up close. But what he doesn’t have is college offers.
How can someone so seemingly ballyhooed by those supposedly in the know not have received much more than a nibble and cursory glance from most college recruiters, you ask? Let Floyd tell you why.
“If he were taller, the conversations I’d be having about him would be much, much different,” Floyd said.
James is listed on Jonesboro’s roster as a 5-foot-11, 275 pounder. But he himself will admit he’s probably closer to 5-foot-9.
“I say 5-foot-10, but it’s really about 5-foot-9 1/2,” James said.
Hence the chip.
He gets the polite invites to camps from college recruiters who are enticed by his his film exploits, but seemingly repulsed by his height.
He gets the handshakes and the “we’ll be in touch” speeches, and though he admits it can frustrate him at times, he says he’s learned to put the weight of frustration on his shoulders and fight like hell on the football field in order to get it off.
“It’s not a sugar coated thing anymore, ” James said. “Let’s just keep it all the way real. I get overlooked because of my height. It’s my size, definitely. I feel like I’m the best in the state and I get overlooked only because of my size.”
It’s that fact that has caused him to develop what Whitehead says is a motor that’s “always running at 100.” It’s also the reason why that motor doesn’t stop when he gets inside the classroom too.
While James is trying to turn heads on the football field, academically he’ll have no problems getting attention. He carries a 3.8 grade point average at Jonesboro, is a member of the BETA Club and the National Honor Society.
He puts the work in academically so that when his time comes and a school really wants to sign him, there will be nothing to hold them back.
“I’m going to work even harder to get a higher score on the ACT so there won’t be any excuses,” James said. “I take no days off on the field or in the classroom. I can’t afford to.”
Players in the trenches getting snubbed by college recruiters because of size is nothing new. But neither is the idea that guys who are not traditional lineman size are excelling at the highest level.
Take St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald — a player James said he looks up to.
Donald, who played his college ball at Pitt, is listed at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, but is probably closer to 5-foot-11. And all he did after having an all-conference, all-American career at the ACC school was go on to become the 13th pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
“When I look at him, and I see he was about my height as well, and the way he dominated in the ACC, I look at him and it makes me say I’ve still got something to work for,” James said.
James says two things cause him to keep from getting too inundated with frustration. First, the fact that he understands his height is one of those things he can’t control, and secondly, the fact that he can utilize his low-to-the-ground stature to his advantage in ways that gives taller offensive linemen fits.
“I can use different moves and techniques to get in the backfield by getting low and using my leverage,” James said. “A lot of the bigger linemen don’t like to get that low.”
But beyond the stuff James can do that others bigger than him cannot, both Floyd and Whitehead say James has skills and attributes that are comparable to all of the other elite tackles in the state who have the traditional tackle size.
“He plays with a lot of power and explosion,” Floyd said. “He’s got a great first step and with the quickness he has, it’s coming on with that explosion. He’s dynamic coming off the ball. He does a great job shedding his blocks and getting to the ball. He naturally knows how to play with his hands. A lot of defensive tackles don’t want to play with their hands.”
Whitehead said that whatever college team decides to grab him will get a player who has the potential to change the traditional way people view defensive linemen.
“I think because the old standard is out there, a lot of coaches and programs still get caught up in height,” Whitehead said. “They don’t think the shorter guys can handle the rigors of playing in those conferences. But there are guys who come along all the time to prove that theory wrong. Every now and then a guy emerges to change that old mindset. Kali is definitely one of those guys who can change those mindsets.”
No mindsets need to be changed at Jonesboro, though. During a recent spring practice, James elicited whoops and hollers from coaches, defensive teammates and Jonesboro alumni who saw him rip through the Cardinals offensive line to swallow up a running back in the backfield.
The way he described it displayed his intricate knowledge and understanding of the game, and his position.
“On that play, I knew I was in the one (position),” he said. “They tried to double team cut block, and the left guard who was zoning had to chip me, and the center didn’t get over to me. I was quick off the ball, and I knew once I got in the backfield I wouldn’t be denied. Once I get in the backfield, it’s tackling technique like Coach Floyd teaches. Eyes to the side, wrap and squeeze.”
James said he knows he can’t do anything about his height, although at age 17 he still holds out hope of getting one more growth spurt. And Floyd says Arkansas State is showing strong interest in him. James will attend an Arkansas State camp hosted by Sandy Creek on June 1.
But even if the growth spurt doesn’t come, James said he knows eventually the offers will. Even if he needs his coaches and trainers to do a little more coaxing on his behalf.
“If I had to talk with a coach who was interested in him, I’d tell him he has to get this guy,” Floyd said. “Wherever he ends up, he’s going to be a great addition to their program. He’s a high character kid, and just one of those kids who’s fun to be around. He absolutely loves the game.”
“This is a kid you definitely want to take a chance on,” he said. “He’s very coachable. Has an unbelievable motor and he’s smart. He’s got that want-to that you can’t teach. He’s going to produce for you, and at the end of the day, as a college coach, production should be what you want.”
All James wants is to keep getting better, to keep his chip fastened tightly to his shoulder, and to keep poking and prodding those who sleep on him with his skills. He wants to keep proving people wrong.
“All things are equal when I’m that three-point stance,” James said. “When I’m in that three-point stance, me and the world’s biggest linemen are looking eye-to-eye. We’re the same size.”