Football, Sports, WVU Sports

WVU receiver Sam James leaning on others, trying to bounce back from tough 2020 season

MORGANTOWN — A catch, a strip and a fumble are what likely pops into many minds when they think of WVU wide receiver Sam James’ 2020 season. His late-game mishap at Texas Tech, which was returned for a game-clinching touchdown for the Red Raiders, was rock bottom for James, who came into his sophomore year with high expectations.

As a redshirt freshman in 2019, James hauled in 69 passes for 677 yards –both led the team by a large margin — and two touchdowns, and his performance led to several preseason honors and accolades, even being featured on the cover of Athlon’s preview magazine.

But a sophomore slump hit James hard, and it began early in 2020 when COVID-19 shut down spring practice in mid-March.

“The whole pandemic thing was kind of a shock to everybody,” James said Tuesday. “Not being able to work out like I’m used to being here because we all got sent home when it happened — not having the resources, so that played a big role in it.”

Although there were two less games in 2020 because of COVID, James’ numbers were slashed in half. He finished with 31 catches for 300 yards and did not find the end zone at all. Drops were also an issue to the point where he saw a sports phycologist to overcome the mental hurdles he was facing.

During the offseason, James’ recognized his mental health was a priority and leaned on important people in his life, mainly his mother and grandmother. He also talked with teammate Winston Wright and coach Gerad Parker.

“My mother is my rock, and she’s been through a lot and I’ve seen her experiences. She’s told me about them and I’ve learned from them,” James said. “They told me just to remember who you are because I was able to do it a year ago and do it well.”

With a new position, moving from outside receiver to slot, James was one of the few highlights offensively for the Mountaineers (0-1) last Saturday at Maryland. He had five catches for 65 yards, including a tough catch over a Maryland defender on a deep jump ball.

James was also the intended target on quarterback Jarret Doege’s second and final interception in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter. Maryland’s Jakorian Bennett was playing man coverage on Bryce Ford-Wheaton but fell on the break. However, because of where he fell, he was in the area to make a play on Doege’s pass, much to the surprise of James.

“I thought it was a for-sure touchdown,” James said. “I wasn’t even worried about a corner because they were manned up when we got into the red zone. I was clueless to where he came from. It was like a blur, honestly.”

A fluke play may have kept James from being the star, just a year after he could have been considered the scapegoat of a loss last year. He’s hoping 2020 was just that — a sophomore slump.

O’Laughlin doubtful

WVU head coach Neal Brown had some good and bad injury news Tuesday for the two players who missed the Maryland game.

Tight end Mike O’Laughlin has not practiced at all during fall camp or during Maryland prep, so he is doubtful heading into Saturday’s home opener against Long Island with a leg injury.

T.J. Banks played most of the snaps against the Terps and will likely do the same against the Sharks.

However, backup running back Tony Mathis is expected to be back this week after Brown said he suffered a minor setback last week, forcing him to miss the Maryland game.

Brown also said true freshman running back Justin Johnson will likely get more playing time this week after playing just one snap behind Leddie Brown.