Southern Methodist wide receiver James Proche has quickly become one of college football’s most electrifying playmakers. I sat down with the rising star to discuss his gradual ascension up the SMU depth chart, his NFL outlook and what makes him one of the top receivers in the country.

James Proche, born athlete

Growing up in Dallas, Texas, a typical day for James Proche consisted of competing with his younger brothers Joshua and Jacob in just about everything under the scorching Texas sun. In fact, James participated in sports year-round: football, basketball, and baseball.

“My brothers pushed me,” Proche said. “They’re not always, ‘Oh, you can do it’, but they challenge me. That’s something I thrive off of, I thrive off competition and challenges. They know how to get me to that next level.”

Though he excelled on the hardwood and the diamond, Proche discovered his love for football at eight years old and hasn’t looked back.

Staying close to home

After three standout seasons at Prime Prep Academy in Winters, Texas, Proche committed to Southern Methodist University in the summer leading up to his final season. The luxury of playing close to home, the school’s lengthy track record of producing productive NFL receivers and the opportunities that it could provide for him after football weighed heavily into Proche’s decision.

As it turned out, his big decision preceded another potential career-altering verdict: he would transfer from Prime Prep to DeSoto High School for his senior season. While the switch brought him closer to home, it was met with early adversity:

“My senior season at DeSoto was kind of a bumpy one,” Proche recalled. “In fall camp, I was admitted to the hospital for ten days due to a kidney ailment. I ended up missing the first seven games of the season. I’m just thankful that I actually got to play that year.”

Redshirted

No stranger to hardship, Proche’s arrival at Southern Methodist was met with the news that he would be redshirting as a freshman. Following a shortened senior season, taking a year off wasn’t exactly something that Proche was prepared to cope with.

“Redshirting was very humbling,” Proche admitted. “I went in expecting to start as a freshman. I got to sit back and watch, take a look at myself in the mirror and really grow up. That was the first time — besides being in the hospital — that I’d really been hit with adversity. Usually all my life, my plans go the way I want them to, but God had other plans for me and it all worked out.”

James Proche may not have made an impact on the field in his first season, but he grew tremendously off of it:

“[I learned] how to be a pro off the field,” Proche said. “In high school — and growing up — you’re always the best player, and people don’t always hold you accountable. Coach [Chad] Morris and coach [Justin] Stepp — the receivers coach at Arkansas now — he was my receivers coach and he really challenged me to grow up and take care of my business off the field.”

James Proche attacked his first offseason with the same mindset that he’s had every year: try to be better than he was the previous year. The difference this time, though, was that he was bigger, faster, stronger, and armed with the proper mindset to contribute, after spending his first season mentally adapting to the collegiate game.

On the field at SMU

As a redshirt freshman, Proche assumed the second receiver role in SMU’s aerial attack, behind rising star Courtland Sutton. Proche finished second on the team with 57 receptions for 709 yards and six touchdowns.

After being forced to sit out the 2016 season due to NCAA transfer rules, LSU transfer Trey Quinn was eligible to contribute for SMU in 2017, and won the second receiver job out of fall camp; Proche was relegated to slot receiver duty. In a season that saw both Sutton and Quinn eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, Proche wasn’t far behind, registering 816 yards on 40 receptions, which was good for third on the team.

James Proche fondly recalls what he learned from Sutton, who is now a rapidly ascending pass-catcher for the Denver Broncos:

“[I learned] how to be a pro,” Proche said. “Courtland was very, very professional. I admired how he handled his business off the field, and I think that’s why he went so high. Obviously, he’s a freak athlete — he’s 6’4″, he can run, he can jump out of the gym — but the fact that he has all those tools and stayed grounded, that’s what I took from him.”

With Sutton and Quinn being selected in the 2018 draft, Proche suddenly found himself as the top option in the passing attack heading into the 2018 season. Rather than shy away from the spotlight, Proche relished in it. He knew his time was coming, and he was ready. Last year’s third option on the depth chart was prepared to make the leap to college football stardom.

James Proche wasted little time announcing his arrival to the college football world. Against 19th-ranked Michigan, he amassed 11 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns, only to follow it up with a 12-catch, 100-yard outing against 12th-ranked UCF a few weeks later. By season’s end, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound receiver compiled 93 catches for 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also doubled as a return specialist.

Proche converted a staggering 65 percent of his 143 targets into receptions, led the AAC in first-down receptions (58) and racked up 555 yards after the catch. He earned first-team All-AAC, Phil Steele first-team offense and third-team specialist honors for his efforts.

“Physically, I never doubted my abilities,” Proche said. “I knew once I got into that position, I was going to shine. Once you’re in a leadership role, it’s about learning how to manage different personalities, learning how to control my emotions, learning how to encourage people and challenge people.”

Returning for his final season

As he enters his final season, James Proche won’t exactly be sneaking up on anyone this time.

The ascending senior — along with fellow receiver Reggie Roberson, Jr. — has landed on the preseason watch list for the 2019 Biletnikoff Award, a prestigious award that recognizes the top receiver in college football. He was also one of 44 players to be named on the preseason watch list for the 2019 Paul Hornung Award, which is given to the most versatile player in the country.

Despite the high expectations, Proche is sticking with the simple theme that’s gotten him to this point: try to be better than he was the previous year.

“The great ones, they stick to their habits,” Proche said. “You hear about all these one-hit-wonders — they’ll have these great seasons and then fade off. I wanted to be more consistent in my approach, doing the same things every day, focusing on the little things — the fundamentals of my route running and making sure I push the guys around me.”

Proche has shown enough continual growth to reasonably expect another banner season; one that should lead to more wins, bigger numbers, and plenty of accolades.

“I feel like I do it all,” Proche said. “People knock me for my top end speed, but that’s never been a problem for me in games. I feel like I catch the ball better than anyone in the country, and I feel like I’m a great teammate, also. I love when my guys eat — even more than when I eat. I’m a big family guy, so my teammates are my family. When they’re having success, I feel like that’s success for me.”

As the NFL continues to find creative ways to get the ball to their dynamic game-changers, players like Proche have arguably never been in higher demand. His short-area quickness, ability to create yards after the catch, versatility to line up outside or in the slot and contribute on special teams and innate leadership would be a welcome addition to any NFL franchise.

When asked if there’s a player at the next level that he compares his game to, James Proche was quick to rattle off a familiar name:

“Jarvis Landy, through and through,” Proche said. “We’re both about the same size across the board, similar physical attributes. I just love the way he approaches the game. He’s cerebral when he plays the game.”

Over the years, SMU has boasted an abundance of NFL talent at the skill position: Aldrick Robinson, Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley, Courtland Sutton, and Trey Quinn.

If all goes according to plan this season, they’ll have another name to add to that list.