James Harvey has spent a good part of his life dealing with the biggest fellas on a football field.
A former offensive lineman who traveled from Columbia High School to Jackson State University to stints in the National Football League with Kansas City and Atlanta, Harvey has spent the past decade at his prep alma mater, coaching offensive linemen and coordinating the offense for seven years before taking the head coaching reins in 2015.
But in that time, Harvey never had laid eyes on the likes of Jaheim Oatis.
Oatis, 14, just started eighth grade at Jefferson Middle School.
Oatis stands 6 feet, 4 inches, weighs somewhere between 280 pounds and 290 pounds, and still is growing.
“He came out in a 15 shoe Monday and we had to put him in a 16 shoe Tuesday,” Harvey said. “It may be daily. It may be by the day.”
“The Puppy With Big Paws,” as Harvey refers to his young charge, bears a resemblance in stature and diction to fellow Marion County product and former University of Southern Mississippi standout defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton when he was a senior.
It’s not so much Oatis’ dimesions, which in and of themselves, are impressive.
It’s more that Oatis has grown this substantial this soon.
Columbia High junior quarterback Ralpheal Luter, a man of few words, was asked whether he ever had seen an eighth-grader the size of Oatis.
“No,” Luter said.
Again, few have.
Oatis merely shrugs. Over the summer, he attended football camps at the University of Alabama, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University. He left all three with scholarship offers.
At 14 years old.
“It’s a dream come true,” Oatis said. “I’m happy for myself.”
Oatis was a hit on social media. In one picture, he’s seen posing with Alabama coach Nick Saban. In another, he’s decked out in the crimson uniform of the Tide, looking for all the world like he just stepped out of Alabama’s defensive huddle.
“I was happy,” Oatis said. “Some people don’t get to meet him every time. He’s a quiet man. He doesn’t talk at all. They say he barely takes pictures with people, too, so I got lucky to take a picture with him.”
Junior right tackle Reagan Davis, who goes 6-2, 270 pounds, finds himself going against Oatis in practice.
“It’s a challenge,” Davis said. “It’s fun.”
Right now, Oatis plays defensive end, his position since his days in pee wee football.
And, yes, Oatis was the biggest fella on the field then.
“(Since) third grade,” Oatis said.
Harvey said Oatis could help on offense as well, eventually.
“That’s his natural position, defensive end, but probably, at some point, once when he gets a grasp of the scheme, maybe he’ll play some offense, maybe some tight end, for us,” Harvey said. “I stuck him in there at tight end (at practice) to do a little down blocking and create an edge for us. He’s going to do some things for us on offense at some point.”
But both Oatis and Harvey acknowledge that the young man will have to prove himself on the field.
“You’re not just going to get the keys to the kingdom,” Harvey said. “If he starts, it’s going to be because he’s best defensive end that we have.”
Oatis certainly appears to fit the bill. He’s a pitcher in baseball, throwing an 84-mile-an-hour fastball to go with a slider, change-up and curveball. Unsurprisingly, he’s a force on the basketball court as well.
“He’s an athletic kid,” Harvey said. “He really is.”
But the transition from the ranks of junior varsity football to dealing with more experienced opponents three, four or five years older will likely result a learning curve of sorts.
“While it was easy for you in junior high simply because of size, now you’re going to be playing against 18-, 19-year-old men, who will be just as strong as you are,” Harvey said. “It’s not going to be like he’s just going to come out here and dominate high school, and that’s what I try to emphasize to everyone, too.
“He’s going to have to have time to grow, just like any other young kid. He’s going to have to have time to go grow into his body.”
Oatis said he is aware of what is expected of him.
“You’ve got to come out here and work hard,” Oatis said. “You do a lot of running out here, every day, every practice. They want you to get it right the first try. If you don’t do it right, you run.”
His teammates have emphasized that technique and following assignments are even more crucial then sheer physicality.
“Just to take your time and don’t try to rush anything,” Luter said. “Make sure you learn and then you can go on from there.”
Harvey said he does have concern, not only about adjusting to the high school game, but that the attention could be too much, too soon, if not for Oatis himself, then perhaps for others.
“It’s going to be mental, and the game’s going to be a lot faster,” Harvey said. “That would be the biggest thing.
“And it’s not only learning what to do here, but dealing with all this publicity and notoriety. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s great to get that kind of notoriety at this age, and I haven’t seen it with these kids (Oatis’ teammates), but there’s bound to be a few that are like, ‘Hmmm, why’s this eighth-grader getting all the attention?’ That’s my biggest concern, how he deals with it.”
Davis said the Wildcats haven’t had a problem with the spotlight shining this summer on their youngest teammate.
“It’s great,” Davis said. “He brings attention to the team, and he’s a great player, and he’ll only get better.”
Oatis seems to have assimilated the attention, and perhaps attention is simply part of the package when you’ve always been bigger and taller than your peers for, well, forever.
“He’s really a nice kid,” Harvey said.
One who admires the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watts _ “Best defensive end in the NFL,” Oatis said _ and studies Alabama’s defensive ends.
While the summer football camps may have brought notoriety, they also left the big fella with words to live by.
“They told me to just work harder,” Oatis said. “Work harder than you ever have before. Don’t ever give up, keep your head up. Get your team right, study in school, keep your grades up. That’s what I want to do.”