Illinois football beat writer Bob Asmussen chatted with former Illini wide receiver Chris James, who enters his second season as head coach at his alma mater, Chicago Morgan Park. James was part of the 2006 Illini recruiting haul that turned around Ron Zook’s program. A year later, with a big boost from James’ class, the Illini went to the Rose Bowl. James stopped by Illinois training camp earlier this week:
What’s it like to come back to Illinois and watch practice?
I feel like an old man. I’m 31. It’s fun to see the change of athleticism this year with the team. I think it’s going to be a good year. It’s going to be promising.
You were happy to see strength coach Lou Hernandez return, right?
Having Lou back is amazing. It’s crazy. Everybody feels the same way about Lou. He’s had a big impact. Lou is a special kind of guy.
What needed to happen to make the Illini into a winner your second year?
In the offseason, we bought into it. And most of us were really, really young. Looking back, we really just put our head down and did what we were told. Everybody was really coachable. We had a great group of guys that Coach Zook and Coach (Reggie) Mitchell recruited. They were great at evaluating guys.
The team was very close. Why was that?
We still get along extremely well. Those guys are like family to me. Eddie McGee moved to Chicago. Fred Sykes moved to Chicago. We’re still friends.
It seemed like everybody did their job in 2007. How so?
Kids have to accept their roles. That was a big part of Coach (Mike) Locksley. And Coach Zook did a great job with that.
When Illinois plays Maryland, who do you root for?
Illinois. I bleed Orange and Blue all day long. I wish Locks the best.
When the next Chris James plays at Morgan Park, are you going to suggest he pick your alma mater?
Yes. I trust in Lovie Smith. I trust in all the guys here.
How do you like coaching the Mustangs?
We’re going to make some noise this year. The kids adapted my personality. It’s going to be a big year. It’s going to be a really, really good year.
Last year, we went 3-6 but we were young. It felt like my freshman year when I was here at Illinois. Kids are coming around and they believe.