Chances are if you follow college football, you know the name Richie James. No one is here today to declare the Middle Tennessee State wide receiver the best player you’ve never heard of, because really, why wouldn’t you know that James is the nation’s top returning pass-catcher, coming off a 2016 with 1,625 yards on 105 receptions with 12 touchdowns?
No, Richie James isn’t college football’s best-kept secret. The word is out on the 5-foot-9 dynamo, whether from Pro Football Focus or in opposing defenses that work tirelessly to curtail his production.
Richie James from Middle Tennessee State is the highest graded returning WR heading into 2017. pic.twitter.com/7qLd37Ml0h
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 8, 2017
His breakaway speed, ability to shake defenders after the catch and hands contribute to James’ eye-popping numbers. All are well-understood commodities among those in the know in college football.
James was no secret coming into 2016, either. In 2015, he was good for 1,346 yards on 108 catches with eight touchdowns. Such lofty production out of a first-year player may have caught some by surprise, but not MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill.
“We came out of [fall] camp [in 2015] saying, ‘Richie’s a five-touch-a-game [player],'” Stockstill said. “He ended up catching 60 balls or so by the halfway point. We ended up saying, ‘We’ve got to get this guy the ball 10 to 12 times [per game].’
“Last year, it was, ‘We’ve got to find a way to get this guy the ball 15, 16, 18, 20 times a game.'”
So, it’s no secret MTSU wants James with the ball in his hands. How the Blue Raiders go about it is the mystery defenses are left trying to solve.
Stockstill noted James’ role isn’t limited to any specific position. He lines up on the outside, in the slot and in the backfield on swing routes, diversifying the looks MTSU throws at opposing defenses.
James catches a lot of passes out of these varied formations, sure, but even that’s not the full extent of his play-making. He also emerged as a rushing threat, averaging a staggering 8.9 yards on 38 carries. His 339 yards and four touchdowns were both second-most among all Blue Raiders.
James has a special ability to do it all, but he flourished because MTSU doesn’t need him to do everything. Stockstill credits the receiving corps around James, as well as quarterback Brent Stockstill, for helping to keep defenses honest against the All-Conference USA receiver.
“To our credit and to Richie’s credit, he’s still able to be productive knowing he’s the No. 1 receiver, and he’s got some good complementary people around him,” he said. “We’ve got a good quarterback, which helps. We’ve got a freshman [Ty Lee] who caught  balls. We’ve got a running back [I’Tavius Mathers] who caught  balls.
“In our offense, Richie may catch six or seven this week, but 10 or 12 the next week.”
MTSU employs a varied passing attack with five players who caught at least 28 passes in 2016. Four of them were receivers, and all hauled in at least four scores.
The multifaceted look of the Blue Raiders’ passing attack is a hallmark of the air-raid philosophy, of which offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is an originator.
In the late 1990s, Franklin coached at Kentucky alongside Hal Mumme — widely credited as a founding father of the modern air-raid offense — and has cultivated his own wrinkles in stops at Louisiana Tech and Cal between two tours with the Blue Raiders.
Franklin’s high-flying approach thrives with multiple threats, which MTSU has. The style also accentuates the qualities of a standout, like former Louisiana Tech star Quinton Patton and Cal’s Bryce Treggs. But none had individual statistical outputs as lofty as James’.
Another cornerstone of a potent air-raid attack is a quarterback prepared for the heavy workload. Stockstill noted even the best receiver has “got to have someone to get [him] the ball.”
With Brent Stockstill back in 2017, MTSU boasts the nation’s top returning quarterback-receiver combination. Stockstill passed for 31 touchdowns, 3,233 yards and the nation’s fifth-highest per game average (323.3).
That Stockstill and James are the top-ranked duo statistically isn’t a secret, but there’s an uncanny nature to their dynamic. Coach Stockstill called it “a sixth sense.”
“It’s almost, ‘Why’d you throw it there, Brent? I just knew Richie was going that way? Richie, why’d you cut out instead of in?’ And he says, ‘I just knew Brent was going to throw it outside.'”
It may seem as though there’s a supernatural quality fueling the nation’s most productive wide receiver, but James isn’t following some mysterious formula.
The chemistry with Brent Stockstill is the byproduct of hundreds of routes run and passes thrown every day. Likewise, James’ own game-changing ability comes from tireless effort.
“Your better players, there’s usually a common thread that they’re hard workers,” Stockstill said. “Richie takes pride in his craft. He works hard, and he’s coachable. He’s caught 200 balls in two years, and he still understands that he can get better.”
The college football world knows Richie James. The secret he’ll reveal in 2017 is just how much better he can be.