TAMPA — Mike James said he never played quarterback, even while growing up in Haines City.
But when the Bucs running back was asked to take a pitch during Friday night's practice and find receiver Vincent Jackson in the end zone, James' throw was spot-on for a 17-yard touchdown; it evoked memories of his jump-pass touchdown against Seattle last season.
"Whatever the coaches need me to do, I'll do it," James said with his constant smile. "Whether it's run through the wall, or push the bus, I'll do it."
James, 23, will need that do-anything attitude as he's battling for a spot in a five-deep backfield. With Pro Bowl player Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey, rookie Charles Sims and former Gators star Jeff Demps also vying for touches, James has quietly made plays while taking third-team reps in training camp.
"It's so much competition, it's to the point to where you look at all these backs, it's like, 'Goodness,' '' James said. "It's almost like we're stingy, we've got so many good backs."
It wasn't too long ago that James was the back for the Bucs. Last season, the sixth-round pick from the University of Miami emerged after Martin suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 7 against Atlanta. Two weeks later, James rushed for 158 yards against the Super Bowl champion Seahawks — his first 100-yard game since high school — while adding the first touchdown pass of his life. He had made it, and was the talk of the town. But in the next game, on the big-stage of Monday Night Football against the Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium, the dream ended. He gashed the Dolphins for 41 yards on his first six carries, taking the Bucs to the goal line, where another player fell on his foot, fracturing his left ankle.
"At first I didn't believe it was broken, because I got back up and walked on it," James said. "Tough break, but that's okay. God's plan always works out well for me, so I expect the best from here on out."
While on crutches, watch some Bucs games from home, James found perspective raising his now 14-month-old son Michael James III. His wife and college sweetheart, Aubrey, was his rock. Both Michael and Aubrey were at a recent practice at One Buc Place. Afterward, he took off his pads and held up his energetic son, who played with a miniature football.
"Thank God I was able to come back and still be able to walk," James said. "It's a lot of things that got put in perspective. I feel like it's made me a better man."
And, he hopes, a better back. James shed 17 pounds during the offseason, now 5 feet 11 and 223 pounds, dropping down to 9 percent body fat, wanting to be leaner and more explosive.
"I feel great," he said. "Better than ever."
James is a physical runner, almost always falling forward, who wants to bring "more of a slasher element to the offense." What works in his favor, along with his success last season, is he can play special teams.
"He's a good football player," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's got good size, of course that injury set him back a little bit, but he's one of our running backs. We've made it known we'll play more than one, and you need a lot. To be a good running football team, we need more than one good player, and we feel like we have at least four we feel like if we went into a game with them, we could have a good running game."
James is always striving to get better, on and off the field. He plans to get his contractor's license, to do some work "on the side." At home, he's Mr. Fix-it, troubleshooting the family's dishwasher the other day and putting together Michael's toys.
"I'm enjoying it," he said. "My wife did everything (when I was hurt), and now I'm back to it. All the good stuff."