In the star-obsessed world of college football recruiting, it’s easy to overlook James “P.J.” Locke.  As a Rivals three-star safety, the 5-foot-10, 198-pound defensive standout is rated as the No. 89 player out of the state of Texas and the No. 44 safety in the country. 

With Oregon bringing in a handful of all-Americans in the class of 2015, Locke goes uncelebrated – even though more than 30 other FBS programs were willing to pay for his education just to put on their uniform.

He isn’t the highest-rated defensive back in the class, but Locke works feverishly to reach the height of his potential. And he takes it personally when he sees naturally gifted athletes taking the spotlight for granted.

Locke chooses his words carefully when talking about the current sports landscape, but he is bothered by the way some five-star athletes are coddled throughout their careers, set up to fail by a system that has never taught them how to fight for a spot when natural talent fails to give them a starting role.

“Us three stars, we’re hard workers and we don’t rely on athletic ability,” he said.

Living what he preaches, the teenager wakes up between 6-6:35 a.m. every morning to work out.

“I feel like when you’re not working, somebody else is out there working and getting ahead of you,” he said. “When I work out early in the morning I get it out of the way and have the rest of the day to look at film.”

Even with his high school career complete, Locke still watches game tape daily to try to find ways to get better, obsessing over his technique in the hopes of correcting the smallest of details.

“I study myself. I got this from a wise guy. I never realized you have to study yourself as much as your opponent,” he explained. “I study myself and my body to see what I need to work on – my speed, my balance, why I got beat in a certain position. Then, I want to work on that.”

That extra effort has served him well, as Locke is one of the most offered defensive back recruits in the country, despite a nagging three-star rating. Arizona State, Baylor, Georgia, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Stanford, TCU and UCLA are just a few of the programs that have offered him a scholarship.

And for good reason.

As a senior, the Beaumont, Texas native earned second-team all-state honors, as well as 22-5A District Defensive Player of the Year, after registering 62 tackles with eight pass break-ups and seven interceptions. Equally impressive, his play inspired several schools to keep up their recruiting efforts months after his commitment to Oregon.

Still, he remained dedicated to the Ducks and planned to enroll in January along with six other Oregon commitments. Given his 3.85 GPA, the early transition to college appeared certain, however a miscue forced him to reconsider.

“I was going to enroll early, right after the Christmas break,” he explained. “I ended up taking a test this summer, and it wound up being the wrong test. It screwed me up. I took it as, ‘Maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen.’ I took the negative away and tried to make it a positive.” 

Locke will complete his senior year like many other teenagers around the country – with a prom and a graduation ceremony. 

He can stomach the testing miscommunication and his current status as a high school student, but the one thing Locke can’t stand is his rating as a three-star prospect. Of all the recruits who are interested in Oregon, none take the recruiting rankings more personally.

“It does bug me, because I feel like being a three-star is the reason I didn’t get invited to the all-Americans games, The Opening,” he said. “I just use all of it as motivation.”

So public is that frustration that Oregon fans took it upon themselves to encourage the young athlete during the college football season.

“Right after Marcus Mariota won the Heisman, three or four Oregon fans sent me pictures of Mariota’s Rivals’ page,” he said. “Sometimes the rankings don’t mean nothing. It doesn’t mean you can’t play.”

That message has been made abundantly clear by the Oregon coaching staff, as the Ducks continue to work to secure his signature on National Signing Day (Feb. 4), checking in with the Oregon commit at least once a week.

Hoping to strengthen the relationship further, head coach Mark Helfrich visited Locke at his home Saturday to reassure the young talent that he was definitely a piece of Oregon’s future plans.

“It was great. Coach Helfrich is a great guy,” Locke said. “I’m glad I picked Oregon. It kind of reminds you why you committed to that school. There are schools that still always call me and try to figure out where my mind is at, but my mind is locked in on Oregon.”

Locke’s father, who was a former standout at Oklahoma State, once told his son that if he gave 100 percent on every play he wouldn’t get hurt. It’s a message his son has taken and used in all aspects of his football life.

“Once I get my playbook, I’m going to study the mess out of it. I’ve just got to put up some numbers in college to make it backfire on the (recruiting) guys for their rating,” he said. “I use it to push me.”

For the next 10 business days, The Oregonian will take a look at the top 10 Oregon Ducks football recruits in the class of 2015. Tomorrow: No. 9.

— Andrew Nemec | @AndrewNemec

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