Cory James isn't Shaquil Barrett, and he knows better than to pretend that he is.
But the junior outside linebacker has been a play-maker in his own right the past two seasons for the CSU defense and is looking forward to taking on an expanded role this fall.
James, a 6-foot, 240-pounder from Del Rio, Texas, recorded 7 1/2 sacks -- a school record for a freshman -- in 2012 while playing on the opposite side of Barrett. Last season, he had eight sacks and 12 tackles for lost yardage, numbers exceeded only by Barrett -- the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year who had 12 sacks and a conference-record 20 1/2 tackles for lost yardage as a senior.
You can't truly replace a player like Barrett, third-year Colorado State University coach Jim McElwain said. But you can fill the void with a player like James, who is smaller, faster and every bit as dangerous as an outside pass-rusher.
"Cory's got some of that he can come off the edge in pass rush, and he can play out in space, so they complemented each other pretty well," said Tim Skipper, CSU's linebackers coach.
They kept opposing offenses from ganging up on either one of them. Now, James will get the bulk of the attention from opponents trying to keep him out of their backfield.
It's a challenge James said he's ready to take on. He's gotten better at using his hands to keep blockers from locking onto him, and he learned a few tricks last season from former NFL star Joey Porter, who was working as a student assistant with the Rams, that he believes will make him an even better pass-rusher this season.
"Now it's our job to develop the other side, so that we continue to have a good, double-edged pass rush," co-defensive coordinator Marty English said. "He does understand the importance."
Junior SteveO Michael, who backed up both Barrett and James last season, is the favorite to win the starting job on the other side of the Rams' 3-4 defense. But he's sitting out this spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, giving sophomores Danny Nwosu and Bryan Ohene and redshirt freshman Evan Colorito opportunities to play that spot with the No. 1 defense.
James, meanwhile, is learning to be more of the every-down kind of linebacker that Barrett was. He was in on 54 tackles, including 28 solo stops, as a freshman and 60 with 29 solo stops as a sophomore. Besides his eight sacks last season, he was credited with five quarterback hurries, broke up one pass and forced two fumbles.
"Cory's definitely a gifted athlete," Skipper said. "The thing that he's really, really picked up is just his mental part of the game, not so much knowing his assignments but understanding how offenses are trying to attack us. Seeing splits and seeing postures of O-linemen and knowing run, pass before it even happens is the main area I see him really improving."
James isn't a big talker, and he's not trying to fill Barrett's shoes. He's a different player, with his own strengths and weaknesses.
He won't know, he said, what the added pressure he'll face this year will be like until he actually experiences it. But he's confident he'll be able to handle it and kick his game up another notch.
"He's coming along really well," English said. "He understands his role."
Follow reporter Kelly Lyell at twitter.com/KellyLyell and facebook.com/KellyLyell.news
CSU's football team will hold its first public scrimmage this spring at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, 6000 Victory Way, Commerce City. Activites surrounding the Rams' annual spring practice in the Denver area begin at 11 a.m. at the stadium that is home to Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids.
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