During a four-day period in early March, Sampson James was gone.
Or so he thought.
The running back was prepared to leave Bloomington days after former IU strength coach David Ballou, a mentor of James’ from his high school days at Avon, did the same. Ballou was headed to Alabama. James, meanwhile, didn’t know where he wanted to go, except that he didn’t want to be at Indiana.
In a fit of irrational, yet understandable teenage passion, James logged into the NCAA Transfer Portal and entered his name. Click. His IU days were done. And yet, as quickly as James seemed to make up his mind, he reconsidered. Conversations with his family and daily interactions with his — briefly former — Hoosier teammates illustrated that IU was not the problem. It was the place he wanted to be.
Now, with his commitment to Indiana reaffirmed, the 19-year-old James enters his sophomore season eager to build off an encouraging freshman campaign and fortify an IU backfield that does not want for talent.
“We are real happy Sampson stayed,” running backs coach Mike Hart said. “I think that when you are close to people for a long time and something happens, sometimes they make an irrational decision.”
James admits as much.
Those four days between entering the portal on March 2 and withdrawing his name from it on March 6? It was an experience James wishes he could take back.
“That decision was definitely a mistake,” James said. “But I’m all in for the Hoosiers. I feel the most love (at IU). All I can say about that situation was that it was a mistake, for sure. I’m happy to be here.”
And so both James and IU have moved on, planning for a 2020 season that is expected to see the former four-star Ohio State commit team with top back Stevie Scott to form a two-headed backfield beast. James started two games as a first-year player last season, including IU’s Gator Bowl appearance against Tennessee. He received the bulk of the work after Scott went down with a season-ending injury in the home finale on Nov. 23.
He rushed for 118 yards and a score in the Old Oaken Bucket Game vs. Purdue, becoming the 13th Indiana true freshman to reach the century mark in a single game. Experience gained at the end of last season is propelling James to take the next step this fall.
“Having an opportunity to start two games, I feel like the game speed is a lot slower,” he said. “I’m starting to see stuff faster, quicker. I feel like I’m adjusting to the game, but it’s definitely pushed me to work even harder so I can play more and eliminate any kind of weaknesses. Those two opportunities at the end of the season definitely pushed me and were on my mind this whole offseason.”
Beyond experience, something else is different for James this fall: his number.
After wearing No. 24 last fall, James switched to No. 6. It’s a number, you might recall, that carries extra juice in IU’s running backs room. It’s Tevin Coleman’s number, after all.
“I was looking to switch to a single-digit number,” James said. “I was actually going to go for No. 2, which I had in high school. But No. 6, I wanted to go with that. Something different. And yes, we had a running back here that wore that number very (well). It’s definitely nice to have something to look up to. You see what he did with that number, so I’m definitely looking forward to the season.”
And the Hoosiers, too, are looking forward to having him here for a few more years.
“He is a great kid and he is all in,” Hart said. “He has been busting his tail to get ready.”