While committed to Ohio State, running back Sampson James saw how Indiana operated as a program. He saw freshmen Stevie Scott, Ronnie Walker, Matt Bjorson, and Reese Taylor quickly integrate themselves into the offense. He saw the talent and depth in IU’s running back room. He saw how close the Hoosiers were to establishing themselves in the Big Ten.
Those are the reasons why James is here, sitting in the second row of Memorial Stadium’s team room on Wednesday as an early enrollee. The nation’s ninth-ranked running back could be sitting in seemingly any team room in the country, but he’s in this one with a lot to prove.
“I was just thinking about my future, what was best for me and my future,” James said. “I feel like this is the place to best develop me here as a man and as a football player. It feels like home, it’s definitely a brotherhood here. More of my friends and family members can come see me play and it means a lot to me to stay home and do it for the home-state team.”
The Avon product was committed to Ohio State for roughly seven months. He was a visitor for the Buckeyes’ 49-26 win against Indiana in October, but flipped to the Hoosiers a day after. James said it was not a decision made overnight, but one that had been developing for ‘several weeks.’ He is the highest-rated offensive player in school history.
“I see how close we are to being one of the top programs in the Big Ten,” James said. “I definitely saw it in that game, we competed well. I definitely see the potential and I definitely believe in the program one hundred percent. I believe in Coach Allen, I believe in the strength staff, I believe in the players that are around me. There’s a lot of young talent. I believe in the program and I think we’re going to do great things.”
James joins a running back room that will have no shortage of competition or talent. Rising sophomore Stevie Scott established himself as a stalwart tailback last season, rumbling for 1,137 yards, 10 touchdowns, and six 100-yard games — all program records for a freshman. Scott proved to be durable and consistent, while also showcasing deceptive speed in his first collegiate season. His emergence was aided by the dismissal of 2017 starter Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest’s season-ending injury in Week 1 of last season.
Gest is expected to return in 2019, alongside rising sophomore Ronnie Walker Jr. — who took 32 carries for 141 yards last season after choosing IU over Michigan State and Virginia. Incoming freshman Ivory Winters is also in the picture after picking the Hoosiers over Kentucky and Purdue. As a high school senior, Winters totaled 2,700 yards, 59 total touchdowns, and a Missouri state championship in track.
“There’s a lot of talent and I feel like we’re going to push each other to be great everyday, which is what you want out of a running back group,” James said. “I’m excited to work with those guys and complement each other on the field.”
James, meanwhile, has been on IU’s campus for roughly six weeks. Like center Matt Katic, guard Matthew Bedford, and defensive back Larry Tracy, Indiana’s early enrollee freshmen are adjusting to college life while beginning the Hoosiers’ revamped strength and conditioning program. Spring practices begin March 2nd.
“It’s been a great experience definitely,” James said. “It’s been a smooth adjustment, the guys and coaches are real welcoming. I love it here. The workouts are really challenging but really getting me better. Everything is going well, my classes are going great, I have good grades in my classes. I feel a bond here with the guys early on and it means a lot.”
At 6-foot-1 and 211 lbs, James is the perfect blend of physicality and speed. At Avon, he both broke tackles and outran defenses to the endzone. As Indiana battles with Purdue for in-state recruits, securing a consistent Indiana pipeline will prove vital to long-term success. The Hoosiers’ 2019 class features three of the state’s top five recruits, while the Boilermakers signed the top two. James will join Carmel defensive end Beau Robbins and Andrean linebacker Cam Williams in Bloomington as elite Indiana prospects.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen was disappointed when James originally committed to Ohio State. Allen had spent time recruiting James’ older brother at a prior school and knew the family. Avon High School would come to Allen’s camp each year in Bloomington. Indiana strength coach Dave Ballou spent years as a member of Avon’s staff. IU running backs coach Mike Hart has proved to be one of the Big Ten’s best recruiters. Those were the reasons why Allen was disappointed to lose him, but also a few factors that played into James’ rethinking.
“We were just respectful to him of his decision and very genuine who we are, and we haven’t changed,” Allen said of recruiting James. And he loved who we are. And it was his decision to come back and to say you know what, this is where I want to be; this is where I want to call home and this is where I want to play and I can achieve all my goals at Indiana.”
It is expected that James will play in 2019, but Allen reiterates that his highly-touted recruiting class must earn their playing time. But as true freshmen, Allen let Scott handle the backfield duties, Bjorson at tight end, and Taylor at slot receiver. Indiana’s trend of quickly assimilating its younger players caught the attention of James, who hopes to help the Hoosiers snap a two-year postseason drought in 2019.
“That’s definitely encouraging and I definitely noticed that,” James said. “A lot of freshmen played last here so that’s pretty big. They’re big on, ‘if you’re good enough, you will play early.’ I feel like we have a lot of talent in my class coming in and there will be some guys that play early.”