The next installment of my “Welcome Aboard” series is yet another one of Dirk Koetter’s and Mike Smith’s former Falcon players. James Stone is a center that the Buccaneers signed back in January to a futures/reserves contract. He’s a real longshot at making this 53-man roster as a backup with the group they have currently, but here’s a little background on the Bucs newest man in the middle.
As a senior at Maplewood High School in Tennessee, Stone was the state 2A Offensive Lineman of the Year, a Tennessee Sports Writers All-State first team member and the Tennessee state Mr. Football as a lineman. He was ranked the 4th best high school prospect in the state of Tennessee, the 7th best guard in the nation and the 32nd best tackle in the nation. His junior year, he played defensive tackle totaling 52 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries.
After selecting the University of Tennessee, he saw action in all 12 games, starting in 8 of them, all across the o-line before settling in at center where he started the final 5 games. As a freshman, he was selected as a Rivals.com second-team All-American as well as voted to the Sporting News and Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America teams. As a sophomore, he started 7 of 9 games all at center.
He started all 12 games in his junior season and was a part of an o-line that produced 5 games of 500 yards or more of offense, averaging 476 yards per game, and only allowed 8 sacks all season. He again started all 12 games at center in his senior year and commanded an o-line that produced 2,261 yards rushing, the most for Tennessee since their 2004 season.
Coming out of college and going into the 2014 NFL Draft, Stone was ranked 10th out of 52 draft-eligible centers and was invited to the NFL Combine where he posted a 5.05 forty yard, a 27.5″ vertical jump, an 8’9″ broad jump, a 4.63 twenty yard shuttle, an 8.16 three-cone drill and 22 reps on the 225lb bench press. He went undrafted and was signed as a free agent by the Atlanta Falcons.
Stone played in 12 games in 2014, starting 9 of them at center. He saw action in 7 games in 2015 before tearing his ACL in December and ending his season. In July of 2016, he was offered an injury settlement and released by the Falcons. He missed the entire 2016 season recovering from his knee injury until the Bucs signed him as a free agent in January. He’ll be competing with last year’s starting center Joe Hawley, center/guard Evan Smith and 2016 practice squad member Josh Allen for a backup role on this roster. He does have ties here in Tampa with current quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian who was his offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
An unusual fact about Stone is that he’s somewhat ambidextrous. When his quarterback is under center, he snaps the ball right-handed because most QB’s prefer it that way. However, when his QB is in the shotgun he snaps left-handed because it’s more natural to him being a lefty. This is really strange, but also very impressive. There’s an interesting story behind why he does it, as well. After winning the starting center job in his freshman year at Tennessee, he lost it as a sophomore because he could not shotgun snap with his right hand. After researching the NCAA rules, his offensive line coach Sam Pittman discovered that a center could switch hands during the course of a game as long as they started with both hands on the football. He said “We changed up the way he was gripping the ball and the way he was turning the ball. And he went from not be able to start at center to one heck of a football player.” It’s a very subtle change that you’d never notice during a game if you weren’t looking for it.
I’m not sure if Stone is still eligible for the practice squad at this point in his career as the NFL has certain criteria that disqualify players after so many years or games. He most likely will not make the 53-man roster so, if he is eligible, look for him to challenge for one of the practice squad slots which will be a tough competition in its own right considering there are only 10 openings. Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!