GAINESVILLE — Urban Meyer was making his first trip to Neyland Stadium as Florida's head coach two years ago, and shortly before kickoff, he still hadn't settled on a return man.
On the way to the visiting sideline, a little-known freshman named Brandon James helped settle that uncertainty.
"He was 18 years old, hadn't played a game and we were getting ready to go play a good Tennessee team," Meyer reminisced this week. "I hadn't decided on a return guy and wasn't sure about putting a true freshman in there to return. I jogged out of the tunnel at Neyland Stadium behind him and it is unbelievable the things people are saying. I looked at him and he starts doing the Gator chomp. That kid is not intimidated by anything. So I grabbed him and said, 'You're the punt returner today.' That's how the decision was made."
At the time, James was a marginally-recruited player out of St. Augustine High, and even he was stunned by Meyer's decision.
"The defense got a three-and-out and Coach was like, 'Go in,' " James said. "And I'm like, huh? And he said, 'Go in there and field the punt.' I was like, 'Hell yeah, let's go. Let me get in and make a play.' I was surprised when he put me in, but I tried to go in and make the best of my opportunity."
He did. And it's a decision neither has ever regretted.
In that game, James had four punt returns for 65 yards, including one for 35 yards and an 89-yard touchdown return that was called back by a penalty. Last year against the Vols, he had three punt and four kickoff returns for 193 yards — including a careerlong 83-yard return for a touchdown.
So what is it about the Vols that makes James shine?
"Just going into that stadium, playing against those guys who are great athletes, it just brings the best out of you," he said. "I don't think it's something about them in particular. You get up for the big rivalry games and we emphasize special teams so much against them because we feel like that's our edge."
Since that first UT game, the 5-foot-7 James has earned a reputation as the little guy who makes big plays happen, especially among his teammates. In the season-opener against Hawaii, James had a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown, giving him three for his career, which is one shy of the school record held by Jacquez Green (1995-97). He's also now a member of the receiving corps, and has played some running back. He is third on UF's career punt return yards (712), behind Green (766) and Keiwan Ratliff (860 from 2000 to 2003).
"This guy is legit," said quarterback Tim Tebow, who knows James well from their days at rival high schools. "He's unbelievable. He's a special player. I don't really like to use the word 'gamer' but if there is someone who is a gamer he's definitely one of them because he's never intimidated, he's never scared of big guys. He never flinches. He's always out there focused and so good under pressure it's unbelievable."
When No. 4 Florida plays at Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, James is hoping to continue his success against the Vols. Tennessee is, no doubt, trying to figure out how to stop him.
"All of the above," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said when asked if the best way to handle James is to kick away from him or just be fully aware of him. "Last year, we got a little bunched up there and he made one guy miss and all of a sudden there's six points for him. So we've got to make sure we do a fantastic job of covering kicks and work at it as hard as we can."
Meyer doesn't recommend kicking away from James.
"I hear people say kick away from (returners), but how do you do that?" he said. "He's fast, he's explosive. You can't do that. I think he's reckless, he's a north-south guy. That's what makes him such a dynamic returner."
The Gator players admit the sideline gets a little more crowded when James is lined up for a return because everyone expects something big to happen when he touches the ball. James welcomes whatever opponents throw the Gators' way.
"They have to pick their poison," he said. "They can kick it out of bounds and give us a short field to score on, or kick it back there and take the risk of getting a big return on them. I figure (the Vols) are trying to come up with some scheme, but we'll just keep doing what we do."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.