"I knew what I could do if I got the chance, and when the opportunity came I just seized it and ran with it," James said on Sunday during Rutgers' media day. "I was surprised at stats leading the country, but I wasn't really concerned with that because I was focused on winning the next game."
Kroft took a similar path. In 2012 he appeared in 11 games but had just three receptions.
Last season he started 12 games and appeared in all 13. Kroft caught 43 passes for 573 yards and four touchdowns. Like James, Kroft was named to the first-team all-American Athletic Conference squad.
"I always had high expectations of myself and last season it started coming to fruition," Kroft said, "and this year I want to take another step forward."
Rutgers is coming off a 6-7 season. The Scarlet Knights ended their season with a 29-16 loss to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
For Rutgers to compete in the Big Ten, James and Kroft are among the veterans who will need to exceed their output of last season.
Both players say they are healthy. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Kroft was sidelined during most of spring practice with a shoulder injury and James (6-0, 205) also saw limited action while recovering from shoulder surgery.
"I am trying to stay healthy this year, keep aggressive as a player and a running back, and help the team in whatever they need," James said.
Kroft put his time off during the spring to good use.
"Being off in spring I had time to focus on technique work I knew I would need in the Big Ten because there are bigger players there," Kroft said. "I put on 10 pounds and have been able to focus more on my technique and that will help me become a more complete tight end."
Senior quarterback Gary Nova, who has started 28 games, says both players bring valuable elements to the offense.
"Tyler is a tough matchup for linebackers and really stretches the field and pretty much catches everything you throw at him," Nova said. "He is just a tough kid."
Nova feels the same about James.
"He is a hard-nosed running back, a kid who was a walk-on who made the most of it when he got his chance," Nova said.
Unlike the beginning of last year, neither James nor Kroft will sneak up on the competition. When Rutgers opens Aug. 28 against Washington State in Seattle, both players will be known commodities to the Cougars coaches.