MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In the immortalized words of former Las Vegas Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, “So start taking care of y’all mentals, y’all bodies, and y’all chicken…”
WVU Football’s redshirt junior wide receiver Sam James has taken that sentiment to heart, used the elongated COVID-19 offseason to work specifically on his mental health. James, who spent his redshirt freshman season in 2019 focused intensely on the negatives of his play, was easily influenced by his success, or lack thereof, on the field. He used to take himself too seriously, and as he battled for a starting spot on head coach Neal Brown’s offensive scheme in 2019, it became overwhelming. His 2018 season, during which former WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen redshirted him, was the Richmond Hill, Ga. native’s first experience with the speed and pressure naturally placed on a Division I wide receiver.
After only playing four games for Holgorsen, James was quickly thrust into action during new coach Neal Brown’s first season in Morgantown. James had no option other than to assimilate, both mentally and physically, into the receiver that Brown’s team required.
“He got pressed into duty,” Brown said of the redshirt freshman James. “He was our go-to receiver in 2019. He wasn’t ready for it, but that was what we needed him to be, and he had some big successes, but he also had some moments that were tough to overcome.”
2019 was James’ breakout season on the Mountaineer roster, whether he was prepared for it or not, starting all 12 games at wide receiver. He played 650 offensive snaps, leading a receiving corps that registered 21 passing touchdowns from a per-game average of 248.65 yards. During those snaps, he lead WVU in receptions (69) and receiving yards (677). He added two touchdowns, putting the first Mountaineer points on the board during the Week 3 win over NC State and the Week 5 loss to the Texas Longhorns.
Brown said that James’ improvement following that 2019 season was slow but steady. He was catapulted into a starting spot for his redshirt sophomore season in 2020, but began to question his ability to make a big difference in the rotation. He only started three of his nine games in 2020, and was leapfrogged for receiving yards by Winston Wright Jr., who logged 47 catches for 553 yards.
“Last year, a little bit of a mixed bag,” Brown said. “Now, I think the great lesson for him, and really for the people on our team, is that his investment has been so high that he’s reaping the benefits. He’s just work. He’s out here. He’s always had speed. He’s always had talent. Now, over the last, really, nine, nine and a half months, his investment has been extremely high, and so it’s starting to show up on game days.”
The mental and physical reps that James was producing in the offseason were noticed by the entire coaching staff, including tight end and inside receivers coach Travis Trickett. Trickett watched him making strides in his confidence, and says that James’ perspective on his ability began to change in front of his eyes.
“I wouldn’t say he was in a bad spot. He took ownership of what he needed to work on, really looked at himself in the mirror, and applied it and worked himself into that position where he can go out there and play with confidence,” Trickett said of James’ development. “I don’t ever think he was in a bad spot, but now he’s in a spot where he’s much more comfortable because he knows exactly who he is, how he needs to be, and how he needs to prepare.”
Getting to that comfort spot required that James seek internal calm during a COVID-19-plagued 2020 season when the entire world became unconventional and mental health was tested in even those who perceived themselves as “mentally strong”. James was taking classes from his apartment, and the WVU football players were not allowed to practice as a full team due to social distancing protocols. His play would naturally improve if he trusted in his natural ability, but in a time when nothing seemed solidified, including starting positions, he needed an external force to convince him that his hard work would eventually pay off. He consulted his mother, Shirleyann, during this time. James said that having his mother as his constant was crucial. He focused on his internal monologue, improving his positive self-talk and relegating his previous ideals of success.
“Not to be so hard on myself,” James said of his biggest learning focus during that period of personal development. “That was the biggest thing. I struggled with mental health, so that was the biggest thing, just getting my mentals right and being able to lean on people more. Take advice. Take it to heart. Just be able to take hard criticism and just move on and learn from it.”
He now finds that on-field mistakes, like a fumble during WVU’s 2021 Week 1 loss to the Terrapins, roll off his shoulders far easier. He’s more amenable to working on the details of his play and listening to his coaches’ thoughts without taking everything so personally
“The fumble? That happens. It’s football,” James said. “You can’t really do nothing about it.”
That mentality shift, alone, is what separates his fourth season as a Mountaineer from the others. He’s now at the top of the wide receiver depth chart and has already logged two touchdowns on a combined 120 yards receiving. Those two scores already tie the entirety of James’ 2020 scoring drives. In the Long Island 66-0 beating, James contributed two touchdowns on 55 yards, and the Doege-James connection will become even more prevalent than it already has been as this season progresses.
That’s, in essence, the difference that mental preparation makes. He’s now more confident in his hands and his feet, and is ball-hungry. He’s looking to build on his self-confidence even more entering WVU’s Week 3 matchup against the Virginia Tech Hokies, a game where he could make a huge difference in the slot against one of the stingiest defenses in the country.