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The Underrated Files #1: LB Robert James

Robert James goes Duck hunting (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Robert James goes Duck hunting (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Making a list of players who are among fan favorites most often read like a Heisman ballot: a bunch of quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers with the gaudy statistics up top, with a transcendent high-sack or interception defender tossed in every so often.

The Sun Devil fanbase is no exception. Guys like Jake Plummer, Cameron Marshall, John Jefferson and Terrell Suggs are among the first names you hear, and rightfully so. They were/are, in a word, awesome.

For me, however, there's another type of player that stands out that often goes either unnoticed or underappreciated: the stat column-filling linebacker. The type of player who, while not posting immense amount of tackles or hitting double-digits in sacks or interceptions, puts up impressive numbers in all categories. In other words, a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type. Today, we'll give some love to one of ASU's best in this category in recent years, Robert James.

His Sun Devil career was a classic case of a player developing over time and overcoming obstacles along the way. A local product from Maryvale High School in Phoenix, James was a two-way player noted for his skills as a defensive back and running back, and he earned all-city honors as a senior.

Coming out of high school at 5'11", 185 pounds, he moved full-time to defense. Despite his small stature, his hitting power and frame hinted at a future move to linebacker, and a redshirt season in 2002 helped him bulk up and set the stage for the rest of his career.

The 2004 season saw James collect six tackles and a sack in limited action. But his continued development and a full-time shift to linebacker earned him six starts in 2005. His production that year hinted at his future stat-filling potential: 36 tackles, five for loss, a sack, interception and six passes defensed.

That momentum led to high expectations for James heading into 2006, but hardship struck early. Just prior to the season, his infant son was stricken by a severe respiratory issue that required surgery. Despite the distraction, James was putting together a solid campaign before severe migraines struck, forcing him to miss the final five games of the season.

With a healthy child and now headache-free, James looked to put the struggles of 2006 behind him and have a spectacular senior season.

That he did.

James exploded out of the gates, leading the team in tackles in each of the first three games. He was more than just a tackle machine, making six tackles-for-loss (including 4.5 against Colorado), two sacks, two pass breakups and one interception over that span.

He continued his strong play throughout the rest of the season, with his consistently dynamic play helping to lead an Arizona State defense that finished 30th in the NCAA. Among the highlights: two interceptions against Oregon State, 11 tackles and a half sack against Stanford, and 11 tackles and a forced fumble against USC.

At the end of the year, the final season totals illustrated the all-around excellence of James: 106 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, four interceptions, 2.5 sacks, seven passes defended, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble for the co-Pac-10 champions.

Such brilliance brought in a bushel of post-season honors. James was named a first-team All-Pac-10 player, a fourth-team All-American from Phil Steele and was selected as ASU's Defensive MVP.

That following April, James was a fifth round pick (138th overall) of the Atlanta Falcons. After seeing little time over the past three seasons, he's now in the mix for meaningful snaps this season.

However his NFL career turns out, James should rightfully be remembered as one of the most reliable and dynamic defensive playmakers of the last 20 years.

(Plus, he wore No. 29, which is awesome)

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