St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso uses phrases such as "very sharp," "constantly thinking" and "ridiculously thoughtful" in describing center Curtis James.

All of which leads Caruso to this: "I understand it's trite to say, 'Well, he's a coach on the field,' but ..."

Actually, it's not trite at all. It's the truth.

James, a fifth-year senior who started his college career as a recruited walk-on with the Gophers, is the head of the Edina High School speech team, making him the youngest high school varsity coach of a sport or activity in the state.

If that makes James, 22, seem mature for his age, well, he is. As Caruso says, a talk with James is " like having a conversation with a 45-year-old."

That maturity is a good thing for the Tommies, especially this year, when Curtis' veteran leadership is one of the keys as St. Thomas tries to win its fourth consecutive MIAC title. The Tommies had five All-America players last season, and James is the only one returning. Although 15 of 22 starters and both kickers are back, most of the returning regulars are young.

James doesn't have to think too deep to see a positive correlation between being a high school coach and his role as the Tommies' elder statesman.

"I'm basically the main rock coming back, so the main question I've asked myself is, 'How can I do more than I did last year?'" he said. "I'm not worried about the guys we've got coming back. So the No. 1 thing I've tried to focus on is building a good relationship, and chemistry, with the freshmen we've got coming in."

James knows firsthand how overwhelming that first year can be. Although he traveled to games his first year with the Gophers, he was struggling with the demands of Division I athletics.

"There were a whole bunch of reasons, but the biggest problem, I think, is that I just wasn't mentally tough," he said. "The easiest way to put it is that I was thinking negatively about the situation. I was like, 'Ah, these workouts are too tough. Oh, I don't want to wake up at 4 a.m.'"

When offensive line coach Phil Meyer, who persuaded him to walk on, left after the 2008 regular season, James decided to leave. After considering giving up football, he decided to transfer to St. Thomas, which had recruited him out of Edina.

But his weight ballooned from 300 pounds with the Gophers to 335 at St. Thomas, and his first-year performance was so-so at best. Things went from bad to worse when the season ended. His family struggled with some personal issues, and he broke up with his longtime girlfriend.

"Life was like one giant woe," he said. "I was like, 'I have to do something.' I decided, if I focus on one thing, and put all my effort into that, everything else will fall into place."

That one thing became football. James had a better second season at St. Thomas, then a Division III All-America year in 2011 when he switched from guard to center. And things are going almost as well on the speech front.

James first joined the Edina speech team -- a winter activity, making it a perfect complement for football -- as an eighth-grader and stayed with the activity in high school. After his first season with the Gophers, he was hired as an Edina speech team assistant.

After four seasons as an assistant, he was promoted to head a program that he has helped rebuild. Agreeing to become a head coach was a tough decision because this fall he's finishing his undergrad degree in business communications, then hopes to train rigorously for a possible NFL tryout.

"Ultimately, I just decided that if it's something you're honestly passionate about, you'll always figure it out," James said.

James literally wears his passions on his sleeve -- er, bicep. On his right bicep is a map of Minnesota with the inscription "100 percent homegrown." A giant cross is on his left bicep, and a bear covers his back.

What, nothing for speech? Oliver Wendell Holmes, maybe?

"I'm really passionate about speech, and [coaching] is something I want to stay with," he said. "But I promised my mom, no more [tattoos]."