EDMONTON - The Edmonton Eskimos were familiar with Brandon James’s kick-returning exploits prior to bringing the University of Florida product to camp.
However, it’s his abilities as a receiver that’s turning heads.
Four days into training camp, James is quickly becoming a favourite target for the Eskimos quarterbacks.
“Every day he’s getting better and making plays,” said Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed. “He’s got the physical tools to play at this level. We’re just making certain that we test him mentally and we put him in stressful situations to see how he responds to that.
“So far, he’s responded really well. Playing in the slot is not an easy thing and he’s responded really well.”
A former standout kick returner with the Florida Gators, where he won a pair of national championships, James went on to sign a free-agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts last year.
He was on the Colts roster through Week 13 of the NFL season before getting cut.
“I’m happy to be here,” James said. “I just want to keep working. Things are going real well for me right now.
“From Day 1, that’s what I wanted to do coming in here, be a playmaker. I knew returning was going to be my first shot to do that, because that’s what I did in school and got a lot of honours and accolades doing that. But when I talked to coach, I told him that I could be a threat on the offence, also. Wherever he was going to use me, I was going to try and learn the position as best I could and just make plays.”
So far through training camp, James has shown an impressive ability to get open, which is the reason quarterbacks have started looking for him. He also has a very good set of hands.
“He’s just one of those guys that always seems to be open,” said quarterback Matt Nichols. “He’s fast and he can get lost sometimes in there. The defence right now is running a system where there is a lot of switching and sometimes it’s tough for a defensive back to switch on to him mid-route and try to catch up to him, because he’s one of the fastest guys out here.”
James’s play as a slotback so far in camp may have something to do with the Eskimos needing to bring in another body to exclusively return kicks.
Reed admits the coaching staff has had that conversation.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise as a receiver, especially as a slotback,” Reed said. “The windows there are very tight and he’s responded well by sitting in the holes when he’s supposed to sit in the hole.
“He makes catches with his hands and he knows how to make plays with the ball afterwards.”
The real test for James will come when the Eskimos scrimmage on Saturday, then move on towards the exhibition season.
Currently working with the first-team offence, the five-foot-seven, 185-pound receiver is expected to get a long look before the regular season kicks off on July 3, on the road, against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“Right now, I’m enjoying it, taking it all in,” James said. “I’m learning from the older guys who are trying to give me advice. I’m new to this game. It’s still football, but there are a few different rules. With the bigger field, it should work to my advantage.”
As is usually the case with American receivers coming to the CFL, James is thriving on the bigger field with the unlimited motion in the backfield.
“I didn’t know much about the CFL before coming up here,” James said. “I knew it was a real competitive league and the game is real fast. I did a little bit of research before coming up here, and now that I’m here, I’m going to go out there, work as hard as possible and see what happens.”