After spurning national powerhouse Ohio State for Indiana, IU freshman running back Sampson James is already a fan favorite in Bloomington before he ever sees the field.
James is the highest rated recruit ever to sign with IU during the recruiting rankings era after he de-committed from the Buckeyes last fall and officially joined the Hoosiers on signing day in December.
With that high profile comes high expectations.
But before James can even begin to try to live up to the rankings, he has to see the field, and that in and of itself will be a challenge.
The Hoosiers legitimately have four players with the talent to start at running back in 2019.
Ronnie Walker, Jr. was last season’s highest rated recruit at the running back position, and he showed flashes of his potential during his freshman campaign. Walker rushed for 144 yards on 4.4 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns.
Cole Gest was actually last year’s starter before a knee injury abruptly ended his season during week one. He should be back and fully ready to compete at fall camp.
And then of course there is Stevie Scott. All he did in 2018 was set IU freshman records for rushing yards in a season with 1,137, touchdowns with 10, and 100-yard games with six.
With a talented stable of runners at the ready, the IU coaching staff will have to find the right balance of workload and effectiveness to keep their young backs on board with their “love each other” culture.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” head coach Tom Allen said. “(Running Backs) Coach Hart has to be able to do a great job of helping the guys understand that if you want to have opportunities to touch the football, you better do all the little things right. And if you don’t? Somebody’s going to take your place.”
James is certainly doing all the little things in the weight room.
The Avon High School product enrolled at IU in January, and in less than six months he has completely transformed his body. James indicated that he has gained thirty pounds since arriving on campus, and that isn’t the kind of weight your typical college freshman gains.
“Being able to work with Dr. Rhea, he’s definitely improved me as well,” James said. “I feel great at my weight. I feel faster than I’ve ever been.”
James has hit the ground running in Bloomington, fueled by his enthusiasm for trying to be a key cog in turning around an in-state program.
It was James’ belief that the long-awaited turnaround in Bloomington was attainable that ultimately flipped him to IU, and that moment is still fresh in his mind.
“It was a huge moment,” James said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was really excited to join the program and just become a part of something special. I know we’re building something really special here. I believe in the program. I believe in all of the guys, all of the coaches, the strength staff. Everything that we do here I believe in.”
While the running back room is stacked in 2019, James isn’t viewing that as an obstacle. Instead he’s taking the opportunity to learn from a guy like Scott that has already been through the rigors of Big Ten football.
“Stevie is a great guy, he’s a really hard runner,” James said. “I’ve been learning a lot from him, a lot of little different things. I’m glad we’re going to push each other. It’s going to be great.”
With James on campus since January and with a new offensive coordinator on board, he should be on a level playing field as it relates to learning the playbook. If he’s ready to go physically, and there is little doubt that he is, the reality is that there should be plenty of opportunities for James in 2019.
Allen hinted at a balanced workload for his talented runners last month.
“The days of the guy carrying the ball 30 times a game, it really doesn’t happen,” Allen said. “I think even programs are understanding that to help guys for their future, to be able to finish their college career and have good mileage left on them when they go pro.”
Moreover, as we saw in 2018, things can change quickly, especially at the running back position where Scott didn’t appear to be in the top five at the position when fall camp opened.
James, who grew up admiring NFL star Adrian Peterson, believes that his versatility as a back can help him crack the rotation this year.
“I feel like I’m a complete back,” James said. “I can block, I can catch out of the backfield, I can be a downhill runner if I want to, I can make somebody miss if I want to.”
That versatility as a running back led James to some gaudy numbers at Avon. The 6-foot-1 bruiser closed out his high school career with 3,451 yards on 573 attempts (a 6.0 average) with 41 total touchdowns.
In the end, he was a consensus four-star prospect by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports, and he was named twice to the Indiana Football Coaches Association All-State team.
But all of that is in the past now. James is starting all over again as freshman, in a crowded running back room.
And the expectations are high. For now, James isn’t worried about any of that.
“I don’t tend to really worry about the expectations. I just look to get better in every aspect, just trying to learn from other guys and pick up everything I can my freshman season and just play my hardest and make sure the effort and everything is there. I just tend to stay focused on what I need to do.”
James certainly didn’t shy away from a challenge at his position or the hopes and dreams of fans when he decided to come to Indiana.
He’s already added those thirty pounds to help him carry the load of those lofty expectations.
If his early strides in the weight room are any indication, James is going to be just fine.
Video Credit – Jim Coyle / Indiana Sports Beat
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