DAVIE, Fla. — Ja’Wuan James never felt an attachment to an NFL team as a kid.
"Growing up, I liked Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn being from the Atlanta area, but didn’t really like the Falcons," James said. "I’ve always been a player guy instead of a team guy. I didn’t want to follow the crowd in Atlanta."
That changed on James’ first visit to Miami.
"The interaction I had with this whole coaching staff, everybody in the organization through this whole process — the combine, senior bowl, coming to my pro days, meeting with them here, getting here, talking to some of the guys on the team, just feeling the right atmosphere, getting to talk to my former teammate Dallas Thomas, seeing how he feels about it," he said. "It just felt like a great fit.
"During this whole process, I had on my mind that I was going to the place I was supposed to be. This feels right, and I am glad to be here, and I am supposed to be here."
Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey, who set out to rebuild the offensive line after a dismal 2013 season on and off the field, targeted James from the start.
"A couple of times he grabbed me and said, ‘What do we have to do to get me here? I want to be here.’ " Hickey said. "So I said, ‘We kind of have to go through the process here, Ja’Wuan.’ He’s pumped to be a Miami Dolphin, and we are really excited to have him here as part of our organization."
The list of qualities James brings to Miami is extensive. He began his career as a true freshman at Tennessee and started all 49 games he appeared in. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound lineman brings a 35-inch reach to keep defenders at bay. Opposing linemen who faced off against James during his senior season — including first-overall selection defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — registered just two sacks. James picked up experience playing a zone-blocking scheme, the same used in Miami, with the Volunteers.
Coach Joe Philbin is eager about the addition of James, especially because of James’ versatility in providing protection for both the running and passing games.
"We think that he has a very good body balance and control, we like the way he can step right or left," Philbin said. "I know that sounds like an elementary thing. But when you evaluate a lot of linemen coming out, some guys really struggle moving one direction or the other. And we felt [James] is a very, very good athlete, he has good quickness off the football."
The way Hickey and Philbin speak, James seems to be a lock for the Dolphins lineup on Week 1. But the rookie, who did not pick up football until eighth grade, anticipates having to earn his job.
"I expect to come in and work hard, earn what I am given," James said. "I’ve got to go earn it. That’s what I’ve been taught my whole life — I’ve got to earn it."
Despite the immediate impact he can bring to Miami’s front wall, James recognizes there are many nuances of his game to improve. He loves the work of his craft, watching whatever game film he can get his hands on to study and adopt the technique of pros such as Joe Staley and Michael Oher. During James’ final semester at Tennessee, he took a karate class to improve hand-eye coordination.
"When I saw where it could take me, how good I was at it, and then I wanted to hone in and get better at it," James said of playing offensive line. "Once I saw I was OK at it — I didn’t even know technique, didn’t know anything — and I really started working at it and saw the progress I was making, I really enjoyed it. I loved to learn offensive line."
James knows his position is not a glorious one. Few statistics reflect a lineman’s effectiveness on the field. No matter to James, though.
"The best part of it is the guys you’re blocking with on your right and left and that running back’s or quarterback’s success."
James may not have identified with a team as a youngster. He does now.