BLOOMINGTON — Sampson James spent a brief stint this spring in the NCAA transfer portal, which would have ended the running back’s Indiana football career at one season, two starts and 81 carries.
But the 6-foot-1, 220-pound James, a four-star recruit from Avon, had a change of heart. After messages poured in from teammates asking him to reconsider his decision, James took his name out of the portal and returned for his sophomore year.
“That decision was definitely a mistake, but I’m all in for the Hoosiers,” James said. “I feel the most loved here.”
There are still no guarantees James will supplant junior two-year starter Stevie Scott III as the starting running back for the Hoosiers. But the one-two punch of Scott and James, plus the move of sophomore slot receiver David Ellis to running back, gives IU no shortage of ballcarriers going into the 2020 season.
“It’s the most talented group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” IU associate head coach/running backs coach Mike Hart said. “They’re talented, they love ball. I feel really comfortable with them out there.”
Scott made the first 11 starts of the 2019 season, rushing for 845 yards and 10 TDs on 4.7 yards per carry before going down with a season-ending injury. James started the final two games in 2019, rushing for a career-high 118 yards against rival Purdue and finishing with 275 yards rushing and three TDs.
Hart said the balance of carries between Scott and James will depend on how new IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan uses them but said both are capable of carrying the load against Big Ten defenses.
“The more we run the ball, the more guys are going to get touches,” Hart said. “You roll with the hot hand. I think we have a couple of guys who can start in there, and they’re all going to play, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Scott, who has carried the ball 406 times in his IU career, said he’s fully recovered from his late-season injury and the extra rest during the offseason will help in absorbing contact during the nine-game, nine-week season. He also credited new strength coach Aaron Wellman and his staff for getting his body in peak condition. The 6-2 Scott reported to camp at 231 pounds.
“Physically, I definitely feel like my body is in shape,” Scott said. “We got a new strength staff during the offseason, so I feel like they’ve been helping us and the whole team get better and just improve every day on the little things just to help our bodies stay healthy.”
As IU’s workhorse back before getting hurt last season, Scott rushed for 100 or more yards in three games. This season, Scott said his goal to bust through for more breakaway runs. His season-long run last season went for 57 yards against Rutgers on Oct. 12.
“Getting through the line of scrimmage and just trying to create more big plays for the offense,” Scott said.
James is looking to build off the confidence he gained from starting IU’s final two games last season.
“Game speed is a lot slower, like I’m starting to see stuff faster, quicker,” James said. “I feel like I’m adjusting to the game, but it’s definitely pushing me to working my hardest so I can play more on any amount for sure.”
Hart said he’s pleased with the transition the speedy Ellis has made from receiver to running back during the offseason. Ellis will still line up in the slot from time to time and should be capable of creating plays in space catching the ball out of the backfield.
“You can just utilize him in multiple ways,” Hart said. “So we are just really excited about it, and he’s special. He can catch the ball. He can run the ball. He’s 6-foot, 210, so he’s a big receiver and a solid-sized running back that can roll.”
Two more incoming freshmen – Tim Baldwin Jr. and walk-on Charlie Spegal – have shown potential as well. Spegal, Indiana’s 2019 Mr. Football from New Palestine, bypassed a number of scholarship offers at non-Power 5 FBS schools to play for the Hoosiers.
“Charlie is everything you see that who he was in high school,” Hart said. “He’s a thick back that runs really, really hard, and he’s hard to tackle. The difference between high school and now is the speed of the game, how fast things go, bigger players, faster players, and so he’s like any other freshman. He’s learning on a day-to-day basis.”