Stratton Brown returned serve, turning the question into a rhetorical one. Why?
As one of 16 seniors on the Fresno State football team, the safety gets to captain an accountability team – each member answerable to the others when it comes to volunteering for community service, class attendance, completing required study hall hours, and attending team meetings and the like.
If one messes up, they all mess up and there are consequences, which can include some required running after practices that run long enough. In fall camp, with temperatures passing triple digits, it can be unpleasant.
And yet Brown and long snapper Justin Verrell, captains of one of eight teams, didn’t hesitate in selecting running back Dontel James with their No. 1 pick.
Thus, the question.
“Why?” Brown asked. “Just look at him.”
Brown and his teammates remember James more for his work ethic and character than his abrupt departure from the program after the 2014 season.
Out of practice then with the latest in a string of freak injuries, he was not happy.
“There were a lot of downfalls in my life,” James said. “I was constantly getting injured, then my grades were dropping and I was feeling like, this isn’t right for me.”
He had left with the intention to transfer and ended up at Riverside City College, which, while much closer to where he grew up, also turned out to be much farther from home.
“Going back, that made me realize how fortunate I was, being at a D-I (school),” he said. “I was like, man, this is like being in a foster home. I got re-recruited and stuff like that, but I realized that Fresno was the place for me. I was already adjusted to the system. I knew all the players. I had a family and I left my family.”
So, not long after he left, he started calling coach Tim DeRuyter, calling teammates. “I called everyone,” James said.
DeRuyter last season had welcomed wideout Da’Mari Scott back after he had left the program looking to transfer, like James, after that 2014 season.
Scott returned in fall camp, worked his way back into the rotation and then the starting lineup and caught 24 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns.
But James was a different situation.
“I got a call from him maybe two or three months afterward hoping to get a chance to come back and I told him it just wasn’t the time,” DeRuyter said. “He had made a decision and he had to follow that through. He went out to Riverside and had a good year, but right before the start of the year he called and said, ‘Coach, can I come back?’ I said, ‘No, we kind of made our deal.’ The year ended and he reached out again.
“With us losing the three seniors and then getting a feel for just how badly he still wanted to be a part of this thing, he did a great job of convincing not only me but his teammates that he wanted to be part of this family again. He made a mistake. He realized it. And he wanted to be a voice for guys that went through something similar to let them know that the grass isn’t always greener. I thought that really struck a good chord not only for me but everyone else and we never had any issues with him work ethic-wise or character-wise and so I decided that if his teammates wanted him back, we’d take him back.”
They did, and the accountability team draft was telling.
“Solid first-round pick,” Brown smiled. “He left for personal reasons and when he decided he wanted to come back, we all took him back. I didn’t take it personally when he left and I welcomed him back with open arms.
“I knew him from before, I knew him when he left, and when he got back he was still the same way, just working. It was an easy call.”
Come the fall, it will be easy for the Bulldogs to put the football in his hands as well.
Though limited by injuries in his first two seasons at Fresno State, the 5-foot-11, 217-pound James fits well in an offense where the run game will have a heavier emphasis.
“Dontel is the physical, downhill back that when we get in some of our sets (and) we want a downhill running presence, he can definitely do that,” DeRuyter said.
And after losing three senior running backs in Marteze Waller, Maliqiue Micenheimer and Dustin Garrison, James is the most experienced back in a position group that includes redshirt freshmen Bryson Oglesby and Wesley Hill, with three incoming freshmen set to report this summer. Now a junior, James has all of eight career carries and one pass reception for the Bulldogs, but his experience cannot be discounted.
“It was a learning lesson, but I can’t say I regret it because if I would have never gone through that phase I never would have realized how fortunate I was,” James said.
“It opened my eyes. It’s a blessing, man, I’m just happy to be back in Bulldog Stadium.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State Spring Football schedule
- Wednesday: Practice 6, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday: Practice 7, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday: Scrimmage 1, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- Monday, March 14: Practice 9, 8-10 a.m.
- March 16: Practice 10, 8-10 a.m.
- March 18: Scrimmage 2, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- March 29: Practice 12, 8-10 a.m.
- March 31: Practice 13, 8-10 a.m.
- April 1: Practice 14, 8-10 a.m.
- April 2: Spring Showcase (free admission)
Times subject to change
Practices to be held in Bulldog Stadium.
All practices open to Quarterback Club members, scrimmages open to the general public. To join the Quarterback Club, contact club president Kenny Mueller at 559-288-0991 or the Bulldog Foundation at 559-278-7160.