BLOOMINGTON – Indiana freshman running back Sampson James said it won’t feel different or strange facing No. 6 Ohio State in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Memorial Stadium.
“My head coach says our next game is our most important game,” James said. “That’s how I’m treating it, like any other game. I would never take any team lightly.”
If not for a change of heart, though, James could have been on the opposing sidelines in scarlet and gray rather than wearing the home crimson and cream. A four-star recruit out of Avon, James at first committed to Ohio State before flipping his decision and signing his National Letter of Intent with the home-state Hoosiers.
James changed his commitment following Indiana’s 49-26 loss at Ohio State last October. He said a number of factors played into his decision to play at IU, including his relationships with head coach Tom Allen, running backs coach Mike Hart and strength coach Dave Ballou, who he knew when Ballou was strength coach from 2012-14 at Avon.
“It definitely felt like home,” James said. “I definitely saw myself improving here and making plays here.”
If James was at Ohio State, he likely would have found himself playing behind junior running back and All-American candidate J.K. Dobbins, who has rushed for 232 yards and three TDs this season.
At IU, James has found himself competing in a crowded backfield as well. Incumbent sophomore starter Stevie Scott III has received the bulk of the work in IU’s run game, with sophomore running back Ronnie Walker Jr., junior running back Cole Gest and the 6-foot-1, 220-pound James in the mix for carries.
After carrying the ball just once in IU’s season-opener against Ball State, James got more touches last week against Eastern Illinois, carrying the ball 12 times for 22 yards and scoring his first career touchdown on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter. James added two catches for 21 yards as well.
“I played hard,” James said. “I did what I could. I got my first career touchdown so that was obviously good. So definitely a lot to learn. I’m still young. I’m still learning every day, but I feel like as far as effort wise, that was there.”
James said the biggest adjustment to college has been seeing blocks develop before hitting the hole. Hart agreed with that assessment.
“Being more consistent and being more patient, It just comes with time,” Hart said. “It’s the same thing. It happens with every freshman.”
IU offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said he’s been pleased with how James has developed from the start of camp in August to the first two weeks of the season. DeBoer said James showed the results of that progress during the Eastern Illinois win.
“Every rep he was out there, you could just, you could see he was getting more comfortable,” DeBoer said. “He’s going to be a force. His time is coming. He’s just got to continue to work and continue to feel comfortable in the transition. He did a nice job. I think he’s improved as a pass catcher every single week, fall camp and the first weeks of the season.”
James said Scott, who rushed for 1,137 yards and 10 TDs as a true freshman, has served as a mentor and helped ease his transition to college. James said Scott has given him tips on doing the little things that go unnoticed as a running back, such as helping as a blocker in pass protection.
“He always encourages me,” James said. “He sees the potential in me, so from that standpoint that’s definitely confidence boosting.”