TAMPA — Bucs rookie running back Mike James is well aware of the challenge in front of him.
With starter Doug Martin out tonight against the Panthers with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, James says there will be pressure "even trying to fill half of his shoes."
But James, 22, a Haines City native, is also excited for the opportunity to show what he can do in his first start.
"I'm going to take the reins and do what I need to do," he said.
Martin has started every game of his career, racking up 1,454 yards as a rookie last season.
But the Bucs have liked what they've seen from James, a sixth-round pick from the University of Miami, in terms of production and progress toward becoming a versatile, all-around back.
"I think (James) showed the ability in college that … he could run the football," Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "And he's done that, whether it's through preseason, things we've seen in practice and what we saw on Sunday. He catches the ball well. But then to pick up on the protections, the guy really gets it and is focused on what his responsibilities are."
James entered Sunday against Atlanta when Martin got hurt in the third quarter, picking up 45 yards on 14 carries along with three catches. James also aided Mike Glennon's 59-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson with a blitz pickup, stepping in front of cornerback Desmond Trufant.
"That was about as good as (you'll see)," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of the pickup. "That guy was coming with a full head of steam, and Mike — as they say — got run over slowly. But he allowed us to get that play off."
Schiano said the 5-foot-10, 223-pound James has a "really good one-cut ability," with quick feet that can make defenders miss. The physical runner always seems to fall forward, gaining the extra yard such as the fourth-and-1 conversion Sunday.
"He's one of those guys where he's got speed, and he's kind of squatty like Doug Martin is," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "They kind of have the same similarities. He's a speed guy. He's strong, and I think he breaks more tackles than people expect."
James might need that tackle-breaking ability against a stout Panthers defense, which ranks third in the league overall (302.2 yards per game) and fourth against the rush (84.5).
"I'm sitting here having nightmares of (Panthers defensive ends Greg) Hardy and (Charles) Johnson and Kuechly and (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott," Sullivan said. "The numbers don't lie. These guys are up in every category."
Kuechly said the Panthers defensive front is good enough that they don't always need to add defenders in the box like most teams have done against Martin.
So the Bucs have no idea what Carolina plans to do.
"Do they respect our backup running backs and our run game?" Schiano said. "Or are they going to lay back more … in 2-safety-high and make you beat them with the run? You've got a rookie tailback, and you've got a rookie quarterback. So let them pick. We'll just react to it."
James said he has learned almost everything he knows from Martin. But Martin believes James is ready. "He's a smart guy," Martin said Tuesday on his weekly radio show on 620-AM. "And I think he's going to do a good job; an incredible job."