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Sophomore Sampson James, running backs all in for IU football this fall


University of Tennessee then-sophomore linebacker Kivon Bennett tackles IU then-freshman Sampson James on Jan. 2. in Jacksonville, Florida. James is ready for the 2020 season after exploring a transfer over the offseason. Alexis Oser

It wasn’t anything more than clicking a button. 

IU sophomore running back Sampson James entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal on March 2. It was exactly two months after the team played its final game of last season, a 23-22 loss to the University of Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. 

After talking with his family and his teammates, the Avon, Indiana, native officially withdrew his name four days later and decided to commit himself to IU once again. 

“This is where I want to be, and that decision was definitely a mistake,” James said Tuesday during a Tuesday Zoom call. “But I’m all in for the Hoosiers.” 

With the start of the 2020 season quickly approaching, James is part of a running back group that is led by junior Stevie Scott III. But with James in the backfield, alongside sophomore David Ellis, IU has more depth than originally expected. 

Even though there was uncertainty, Sampson never had to rekindle his relationship with running backs coach Mike Hart. There were no hard feelings. 

“We’re real happy Sampson stayed,” Hart said. “When you’re close to people for a long time and something happens, sometimes you make irrational decisions. He wanted to be here, He’s a great kid. He’s all in, so he’s been busting his tail to get ready.” 

James finds himself firmly positioned as the Hoosiers’ second option at running back, but Hart said that doesn’t mean he won’t get as many carries this season. 

Both he and Scott are traditional, downhill runners, while Ellis adds an element of explosion out of the backfield with speed and a greater ability to catch the football. 

It’ll be up to first-year offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan to develop a scheme that benefits each of their set of skills. 

“We have to commit ourselves as a coaching staff to running the ball,” Hart said. “As long as we do that, we have the tools. We have the O-line to do it. We have the talent in the backfield to do it. I’m looking forward to when we are game planning, seeing what’s the best way to get these guys the ball.”

Scott led IU on the ground with 845 yards and 10 touchdowns last season while only playing in 11 games. He missed the final two games of the 2019 season due to injury, and James stepped up in his place. 

Against Purdue, he toted the football 22 times for 118 yards, a 5.4-yard average. He also scored one touchdown in the 44-41 overtime victory to end the regular season. 

In the Gator Bowl against Tennessee, however, he didn’t fare quite as well. James carried the ball 11 times for a measly 25 yards in the loss, but he said the two games added to his experience and made him a better player. 

“The game speed is a lot slower,” James 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.” 

This season, no matter who IU puts in the backfield behind sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to run the ball, the running backs will be a large part of the offense. 

“I think, as far as a group, it’s the most sound group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Hart said. “They’re talented, they love ball and I feel really comfortable with them out there.”

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