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After starting high school as a wide receiver playing six-man football, James Hanna has since faced a steady diet of adjusting and learning.
A Cowboys fan growing up in the Dallas suburbs, Hanna transferred from Coram Deo Academy to Flower Mound for his last two years of high school and thrived in the more intricate 11-man game. Despite outstanding success at the position, though, his large body seemed to make him a better fit at tight end, a position he converted to as a college freshman at Oklahoma.
Hanna gradually made the transition, and after a big senior year with the Sooners that saw him accumulate 27 receptions for 381 yards and two touchdowns, the Cowboys made him their sixth-round draft choice (186th overall) back in April.
Now the highly athletic 6-4, 249-pound Hanna wrapped up perhaps his most challenging task, adapting to the more complex duties required of an NFL tight end.
"I think I have a lot to learn. I think I haven't reached my potential or even close to it," says Hanna, who wowed scouts with his blazing speed at the 2012 Scouting Combine, topping all tight ends in five different categories. "The coaches told me it's on me to develop as much as I can to be the best I can be, and I feel like, with hard enough work, I can be a contributor here."
"He's got a lot of work to do," agrees formers Cowboys tight ends coach John Garrett. "There's such a learning curve when you come play tight end in the NFL, so we're working on technique, we're working on stance, we're working on assignments. He's got a lot of work to do, but he's showing a lot of potential, and a really good work ethic to get it right."
Hanna confirms that his responsibilities as a tight end in the NFL are significantly more complicated and learning them has been an ongoing process.
"Pre-snap, I just have to have an awareness of a lot of things I never had to think about in college before, like what the linebackers are doing or possible adjustments I might have to make in the run or passing game," says Hanna. "It's one thing to see it on film. It's very different to be on the line and see it right in front of you."
"At tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, he has to play a lot of positions," says Garrett, who is now on the coaching staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He has to receive long, receive short, he has to pass block, he has to run block, he has to run block on the strong side, he has to run block on the weak side, so there're a lot of things going on. And he's learning all of those things and he's understanding the volume of the position and its responsibilities."
Just another step in the journey that began back at Flower Mound High School, where former coach Cody Vanderford says Hanna arrived as an imposing raw talent who didn't take long to dominate at that level. Growing up, I set my goals as, 'I want to play at Oklahoma; I want to play for the Dallas Cowboys.' Not many people can say they are literally living their dream. It's amazing that it's actually happened.
"To know the path that James took to get to where he is, it's really amazing," says Vanderford, who guided Flower Mound to an 8-3 record in Hanna's junior season and a 6-5 mark the next year. "He only played six-man football and shows up on our campus, and to be quite honest, in his football development he was behind. It probably took until his second season with us before he really started to be able to make that transition from six-man football to 5A football. And, of course, seeing him go to Oklahoma, he was probably a couple of years behind and it took him a couple of years there to get adjusted. But he was given a gift, he's so talented, and having the ability he has and the size that he has, and to run like he can, it's been fun to watch that happen."
Hanna notes that the move over to Flower Mound was crucial to his development as a football player and afforded him the opportunity to climb the ladder.
"First of all, six-man football is the most fun sport that I've ever played, just because the field is a little bit smaller, but there're less people, so if you're fast and big like I was, then there's a good chance you'll be successful," Hanna says. "But, I didn't think I'd be able to go to a good college team from there, so I transferred to a bigger school. I got some exposure that I didn't have before. College coaches actually came out and watched some practices, so that was really the only reason I had a chance to play in college at all."
Hanna excelled at wide receiver, earning Class 5A Region I District 6 Offensive MVP honors while racking up 53 receptions for 764 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. Despite that success as a wideout, Hanna was recruited by colleges as a tight end, prompting a position change he wasn't originally all that thrilled about."He was not real happy about going to Oklahoma as a tight end, initially," Vanderford says. "He played wide receiver for us and played it rather well, and he returned kicks and punts. I think he really enjoyed playing out wide and when they told him they wanted him to be a tight end, I don't think he warmed up to that idea until probably about a year."
"I wasn't super happy at first," acknowledges Hanna, who competed primarily on special teams his first two years of college. "But every single school that recruited me, except for one maybe, recruited me as a tight end, so I kind of realized that if I was going to play, I was going to play as a tight end. I wanted to play and it turns out that I liked the position, so it worked out well for me."
At OU, Hanna finally blossomed into a key performer as a junior in 2010, compiling 18 catches for 292 yards and seven touchdowns to help lead the Sooners to a 12-2 record and the Big 12 title.
"I told him when he left that he had the ability to play on Sundays, and for him to play on Sundays, he would have to put some weight on him and put his hand on the ground and become a tight end," Vanderford says. "I think the biggest transition for him, and it probably still is a bit of a challenge for him, is blocking, because that's something he never did. He had to have the weight to do those things. Still, he creates such a challenge for defenses – the matchups he gets going against linebackers and safeties, it creates a mismatch for the offense."
"We really like James Hanna. He obviously played at an outstanding program," head coach Jason Garrett says. "He's a receiver-type guy and he can get down the field. We also feel like he has the measurables to be an on-the-line tight end, put his hand on the ground and block defensive ends in this league. So we like his upside and I think his receiving ability is pretty apparent and his speed is apparent as well."
Like any local kid who grew up in the Metroplex, Hanna always wanted to play for the Cowboys, so now getting the chance to live out that fantasy has been an incredible experience.
"It's like, literally, a dream come true," Hanna admits. "Growing up, I set my goals as, 'I want to play at Oklahoma; I want to play for the Dallas Cowboys.' Not many people can say they are literally living their dream. It's amazing that it's actually happened. Close to family, it's the best opportunity I could have."
"He's an outstanding, tremendous young man, and that's basically a credit to his family," Vanderford says. "He's so humble, and I think he's very grateful to have everything he's got. He's never let his abilities take him places with his personality that will ever get him in trouble. I think that's a credit to not only him, but his parents."