NEW BRITAIN - On a normal day in the fall, Tyshaun James would be using his time during the week to lift, study film of upcoming opponents and get some extra practice reps in with his quarterback. The weekends reserved for making highlight real plays and scoring touchdowns.
But after what has been an abnormal summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has not been and will not be a normal fall. There aren’t any practices and any games. The Central Connecticut State football team was supposed to host Wagner for its season opener last Friday and was to travel to Merrimack on Saturday, but those and the rest of the Blue Devils’ games were put on hold when the Northeast Conference announced on July 29 it was postponing fall sports competition and championships indefinitely. The conference is supposed to reconvene Oct. 1 to reevaluate it status.
Instead, CCSU’s all-conference wide receiver is spending time at his home in Middletown, taking classes online and waiting for the OK from the athletic department and the school to resume football practices.
“It’s frustrating,” James said. “This was supposed to be my senior year. We would have been getting ready for games. But I’m trying to see it as a positive and that I get another year to finish off college. I’m going to graduate this year with a degree in economics and then it gives me another year to be a better man and a better leader on and off the field.”
There wasn’t much James couldn’t do on the field last season.
After tallying just one reception for 11 yards as a freshman and 20 catches for 218 yards with four touchdowns as a sophomore, James made big strides last season, becoming the Blue Devils’ top offensive playmaker outside quarterback Aaron Winchester. The receiver led the NEC and ranked 23rd nationally with 14 total touchdowns - nine receiving and five rushing. He was 12th in the NCAA with 20.38 yards per reception, and ranked second in the conference in receiving yards (978) and receiving touchdowns, sixth in receptions (48) and eighth in all-purpose yards (88.1 ypg), helping CCSU wins its second conference title in three years after going 11-1 during the regular season and another trip to the FCS playoffs.
This season, the Blue Devils were heavily favored to win the NEC again. They were picked first in the conference’s preseason poll and James was expecting to make another leap as a player. But after the NEC’s decision to postpone the season, those around the program - both players and coaches - believe playing games this fall will be unlikely. Even as Connecticut’s metrics for positive covid-19 cases remain among some of the best in the country. There’s still conference teams in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and a game against FBS Toledo in Ohio, all with worse numbers, that still had to be played.
“I don’t think there’s any chance we play in the fall,” CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy said. “I know they’ve talked about postponement and are going to reevaluate Oct. 1. But what are we going to play four or five games in the fall? I don’t see that happening. I know the FBS is going to play and they have testing. To me it’s too much of a risk. They’re talking about the spring, having a preseason potentially Jan. 22 in the dead of winter and then playing an eight or nine game schedule. Having camp on Jan. 22 and then first game Feb. 20, I don’t see how that works.”
Other conferences - the ACC, Big 12, AAC, SEC, Conference USA - meanwhile, and other FCS schools, have already played games or will start later this month. James and other CCSU players have been against a spring season, citing the quick turnaround in a sport where
James, who has aspirations of playing in the NFL, wants to be able to get as much exposure as possible and a shortened season he believes wouldn’t help. Neither would playing, and then going right into his pro day and then possibly an NFL camp.
“I want to play at least 10 games,” James said. “I want to go for some records and compete for a championship. I want to play the bigger schools. That’s what gets us a lot of looks. My freshman year, we played Syracuse, Ball State [my sophomore year] and then Eastern Michigan [in 2019] and then next year , we play Miami (Fl). Those are the games that gets people in there and for me, I have dreams of playing in the NFL, so me playing against the bigger schools and having a full season, I feel like that would help my draft stock personally.”
There was also concern that after the NEC postponed its season, some of CCSU’s more high-profiled players would chose to transfer to different programs. The Blue Devils’ starting right tackle from last season, Connor Mignone, is now at Vanderbilt where former CCSU head coach Pete Rossomando is the offensive line coach.
McCarthy, although he wants to keep as many of his players with the program as possible, understands the business side of the sport, even at the collegiate level. But he has been making a strong effort to keep players like James and linebacker Tre Jones.
“Tyshaun is a major priority. Tre is a major priority,” McCarthy said. “I think we’ve done a good job as a staff of keeping the kids engaged, but I don’t think anyone really knows the next time anyone is going to play and I think that’s allowed us to keep a lot of these kids in the program. Tyshaun can go play at a lot of places for sure. Tre can go a lot of places and play. People would snatch them up right away.”
But he added: “If a kid has a better opportunity, then he’s gotta take it. I said to Connor Mignone when he had the opportunity to go to Vanderbilt, it’s a better opportunity. A kid that did everything the right way in our program, I have a hard time telling that kid you shouldn’t be leaving our place. If you can go to Vanderbilt, you gotta go to Vanderbilt and now he’s the starting right tackle there so we have to do what’s in the best interest for the kids.”
James, however, said transferring out of CCSU was never an option. He’s more than comfortable there and sees no reason for a change.
“Central is home to me,” James said. “The coaches treat me with love and respect and vice versa. That’s how I treat them. I love where I’m at with Central. It’s a great family feel. I love the students. I love the University. I’ve had people ask me, oh are you going to leave. I don’t see why I would. I’m getting NFL looks at Central, so I mean if you’re good enough, they’ll find you. We have a good team. I feel like we have the ability to run it back for a championship. That’s why I play the game. I love to win and win championships. That was never really a thought in my mind to go somewhere else to have a season.
A quarterback at nearby Middletown High, James wowed onlookers with his athleticism and playmaking ability, but when it came to his college recruitment was overlooked. His decision to stay at CCSU comes down to loyalty. It’s why he never considered leaving, even if other coaches or program wanted him.
“I wouldn’t pay them any mind honestly,” James said. “They had a chance to get me when I was a senior in high school and didn’t. Central gave me that shot, so I’m going to stick with them.”
It could end up working out for James in the long run. If the Blue Devils don’t have a season, either in the fall or the spring, he would save a year of edibility, allowing him to play in the 2021 season. And while he’s frustrated at not being able to have a season now, he views it as a positive for his ultimate goals.
“I look at it like I get another year to get my game a step ahead to where it was already at,” James said. “I’ve only been playing receiver for three years and having this fourth year to work on my game is going to be helpful. I feel like I always have stuff to learn. Say we did have a season and then I did end up going to a training camp, I feel like I would be ready to compete. But having this extra year has given me a lot more time to hone in on the little things, the technique and stuff to bring my game to the next level. So if I do get a shot at the NFL, at a training camp, I can be the best receiver I can be. “
Of course, when he does get back on the field, James will have to deal with the potential growing pains of playing with another new quarterback - his third during his time with the program. He played with Jacob Dolegala - who spend 2019 with the Cincinnati Bengals - his freshman and sophomore seasons and Aaron Winchester - the NEC’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 - last year.
The Blue Devils currently have five quarterbacks on their roster: redshirt-sophomores Kyle Zajack and Romelo Williams, sophomore Alex Hawkom, incoming freshman C.J. Duell, as well as Shon Mitchell, a transfer from William & Mary. During his first three seasons at William & Mary, Mitchell has thrown for 1,421 yards and six touchdowns over 15 games played.
“He’s very similar to Jake and to Aaron,” McCarthy said. “He’s very astute, he takes notes. He was bounced around a little bit at William & Mary. He faced some adversity there and handled it with class. I think he’s going to bring a lot to our football team.”
For James, it comes down to being able to do what he did last season when he had to build a rapport with Winchester and that means holding himself accountable to be able to do his job at a high level.
“I have confidence in every quarterback we have here now,” James said. “They’ve all shown something either in the spring or on film at a previous school they were at. I always say it’s the quarterback’s job to throw the ball and it’s my job to catch it. It’s as simple as that. Honestly, it’s just about building a relationship, hanging out with them, talking with them to see what they like, watch film. After a while, you get used to it. With the year we have off, I think it’s going to help a lot. We didn’t really know who was going to be our starter. I mean, I have to work my butt off. I’m not a starter, anything can happen. But I know we have a great team and we’re trying to run it back.”
For now though, he’s focusing on school and trying to do what he can to make sure he’s ready to play football whenever that opportunity presents itself. He just hoping it’s a matter of when, not if.
“We’re just waiting for the go ahead to be able to do stuff,” James said. “I’m just trying to train, run some routes and stay as sharp as possible.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org