Opposition running backs approaching the strong side of Howard's defense this season may need a set of afterburners to turn the corner. That's where they will find outside linebacker James Graham who, with 4.6 speed, can catch runners and, with a 225-pound frame, can crunch them.
"He's quick off the ball and as fast as any back we have," said Mike Johnson, Bison linebacker coach. "He is able to strip the interference and turn the play in."
Coach Dong Porter, not easily given to superlatives, says, "If Graham can have the kind of year we figure he is capable of play up to his potential and avoid injuries, he can make a pro team."
Graham, a senior, already has received questionnaires from the Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys.
"His speed is a natural gift, outstanding for someone his size," Porter added. "His height (6-foot 4) is also a plus."
Graham's attributes go beyond sheer speed and other physical gifts, according to Porter.
"He is a good team player who makes sacrifices for the good of the ball club. James is quiet by nature, not a braggart. He just goes out and works hard, in practice and in games. His real secret is that he works exceedingly hard at offseason conditioning."
Graham, a physical education major, plays basketball, swims and rides his bicyle in the offseason, in addition to running. "I just love to run," said Graham, who competed in the 220 on his high school track team.
Graham played defensive end for two relatively undistinguished years at Theodore Roosevelt High School. After the 1975 Interhigh All-Star Game, he had offers from the University of Pittsburgh, among other schools but chose Rochester Junior College in Minnesota, which had sought him first.
At Rochester, Graham continued to play defensive end and was named a first-team Junior College All-America, as a sophomore.
After finishing Rochester, Graham received offers from Minnesota, Iowa and Iowa State and others, but chose the Bison.
"I wanted to play in front of a home crowd," Graham explained. "Howard is right down Georgia Avenue from where my parents live, so they could come see me play."
"I think it just got too cold during those northern winters," Porter added.
Graham played the first half of his junior year at defensive end but was switched to linebacker. "He had a natural inclination toward linebacking," Porter said. "He didn't work as well from the three-point stance as he did standing up."
Helping lead a defense that limited opponents to 2-7 yards per rush, Graham recorded four quarterback sacks and recovered one fumble last season. Although he was only 11th on the team in tackles, that figure should improve following an outstanding spring practice.
"He graded really high last spring (85 out of a possible 100)" said Porter. "He showed a good pass rush on blitzes and was very active in pass coverage, getting back quickly."
Graham may be used as an extra "up" defensive lineman when situations call for it this season.
"I like to be where the action is because I like to hit," said Graham.
Graham was chatting outside the dressing room prior to yesterday's first full-dress practice. A fellow player yelled, "Come on, Graham, let's go hit somebody."
Graham looked ready.