PORT ARTHUR —
Editor’s Note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on April 23, 2008.
Three hectic months after announcing he would skip senior season at Texas for the NFL draft, Jamaal Charles has pretty much done all he could possibly do to enhance his value. He impressed scouts with his pass catching ability at a skills competition in Arizona, ran a 4.38 40 at the NFL combine in Indianapolis and has gotten high marks across the board in the increasingly important area of character.
Slowly but steadily, as NFL personnel types have studied tape and observed, the stock of Port Arthur’s all-time leading schoolboy rusher has climbed. Only three backs — Arkansas’ Darren McFadden, Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart and Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois — are locks to be taken before him on Saturday.
After that, there’s divided opinion on whether Jamaal, Felix Jones of Arkansas or Chris Johnson of East Carolina will be the next back taken. Most projections have him going in the first half of the second round, although there are those who think he could slip into the first round.
“I put him between 31 and 40, with an arrow pointing up, saying he could wind up in the 21-to-30 area,” said former Dallas Cowboys talent guru Gil Brandt of NFL.com. “If you went strictly on the fourth quarter of the Nebraska game, he’d be the first pick out of the box.
“He’s got really good running skills and the way he can catch the ball coming out of the backfield is going to cause a lot of problems for defenses. I think he’s going to be a good player at this level.”
Charles, for his part, knows it’s now out of his hands. On the Saturday that will be the biggest day of his young life, he’ll be at home to watch the draft with family. He says he’s won’t start getting too excited until the first round reaches its latter stages.
“It would be great to be taken in the first round,” he said by phone from Austin, “but it’s probably going to be early in the second. Several teams have told me they really like me, but you never know what is going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of wild stories about the draft.”
Among the teams who have shown the most interest are Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago. Jamaal, who spent last Friday at Valley Ranch with the Cowboys, said he’d love to wind up in Dallas.
“It couldn’t be much better than to play high school, college and pro football in the state of Texas,” he said. “My family and friends could come to the games, like they did at Texas. And I’d be going to a good team.
“I had a good visit with Wade Phillips and Jerry Jones. I talked with Wade for a long time. Since he’s from Port Neches, it was like I already knew him. One of their scouts told me he was really pushing for me. I think it could be Dallas, Tampa Bay or Tennessee.”
Charles’ calling card is explosivenesss, nifty footwork and big-play ability. He reached the end zone a remarkable once every 14.8 carries (36 TDs) at Texas, averaged 6.3 yards on his 531 carries and put an exclamation point on his career by rushing for 897 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns in his final five games as a Longhorn.
The real eye opener is that he left Texas, a school with a rich legacy of great running backs, ranked No. 4 on the all-time rushing list with 3,328 yards. He did it despite being a part-time player in two of his three seasons and operating from an offense that was not geared to what he does best.
Knocks on him, mostly from the uninformed, are that he’s a fumbler and that he’s not a productive runner between the tackles. Truth is, Jamaal lost four fumbles -- one for every 64 rushing attempts — last season and none after the Oklahoma game. He also made numerous big plays between the tackles.
Interestingly enough, Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis, oft-criticized in this space for the way he used or didn’t use Charles, has stepped up to debunk the negatives.
“He grew a great deal in gaining tough yards,” Davis told the Dallas Morning News. “As a fast guy, I think sometimes the natural tendency is to think more east and west. But most of his big runs last year were between the tackles . . .
“We did not think he was a guy who was loose with the ball or careless with the ball. I would certainly not classify him as a guy who had fumble problems.”
Charles’ ability to get to the end zone in a hurry is his major asset, but don’t underestimate the appeal he brings as a high quality young man. At a time when the NFL is on thug alert, and is getting tougher and tougher on bad actors, an unassuming kid who still responds with “yes, sir and no, sir” earns bonus points.
Being a good guy, of course, wouldn’t mean anything to NFL types if it did not come attached to breathtaking skills. Jamaal’s got the whole package.
Charles’ character was the first thing that grabbed his agent, Joby Branion of California-based Athletes First.
“It was quickly apparent Jamaal is a wonderful young man who clearly has a good sense of family, is grounded and has a warm heart,” Branion says. “Those qualities are perfectly balanced with a fierce competitive streak.”
Branion sounds like a scout when he breaks down what Jamaal brings to the table as an NFL prospect.
“First of all, he’s got amazing speed and acceleration. Once he’s taken a couple of steps, he’s flying. I haven’t seen anybody run as fast as Jamaal since Darrell Green. Plus, he’s got great vision, elusiveness and patience.
“He also brings that Reggie Bush quality of being a threat even when he doesn’t have the ball. The defense absolutely has to account for him at all times. He’s the kind of threat a sharp NFL coordinator can use to create some major problems.”
Bottom line, then, somebody in the NFL is about to hit the jackpot with Port Arthur’s most spectacular football talent since Little Joe Washington.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com.