Slowly working his way back from lower-leg issues, Indiana running back Sampson James hasn’t taken many carries this spring. He hasn’t stood at the side of a quarterback all that much.
He’s been right on Deland McCullough’s hip instead.
“Sampson is a leader in our room, knows what’s going on,” said McCullough, IU’s new running backs coach. “We got a couple new (scheme) wrinkles that we’ve added to the mix, he’s picking those up. He’s like another coach out there. He’s very involved and very vocal.”
It’s a promising sign when a sophomore with immense potential is so engaged, mature enough to not just check out mentally when he’s not physically holding the ball. But James’ position on the field hints at something else. There is a growing closeness between coach and player, in a marriage with high hopes.
IU needs to bolster its running game, and it was considered a coup for IU coach Tom Allen when he brought back “Coach DMC,” who had a successful six-year run at IU, leading up to a one-year stint with Southern Cal and three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. His resume speaks for itself.
But another aspect of McCullough’s appeal was his demeanor. Tabbed as the Hoosiers’ associate head coach, McCullough was a high school principal before he became a college coach. He’s a teacher more than a screamer. He’s a supremely confident leader, someone with a presence.
McCullough is just starting to make this running back room his own, and it’s a talented one. It includes sophomore David Ellis, an elusive playmaker who continues to progress from freshman pass-catcher to full-time ball-carrier. It also includes freshman Tim Baldwin Jr., who racked up 100-plus yards in a win over Maryland last year. The coaching staff holds on to the memory of James’ 118-yard performance versus Purdue in 2019, as well.
James was one of McCullough’s first calls when he agreed to an IU return.
“I know Sampson really, really well … and I know how excited he is to have Deland McCullough as his coach,” Allen said. “We saw a glimpse of what Sampson can be and the way he played against Purdue. … That’s what I’ve used to say, ‘That’s the Sampson James I know you can be in a Big Ten game.’
“It’s about getting him healthy, keeping him healthy, and getting him developed at a high level. I really do feel like Coach McCullough is a great fit for that, and they have a good strong relationship already being built.”
In his first spring with this group, McCullough has been pleased, and he’s not just pointing to the trio of Ellis, Baldwin, and James. He’s focused on building the room from the bottom up, unafraid to talk up walk-on Charlie Spegal for walloping defenders in pass protection this spring.
The 5-foot-10, 219-pound Mr. Football from New Palestine has also shown some wiggle.
“He made a cutback the other day … the whole room was like ‘Man, where did that come from?’” McCullough said. “But again, understanding what he’s looking at, feeling more confident in what he’s looking at and what the expectation is.”
The expectation is to build a room that isn’t just driven by a bell cow like the departed Stevie Scott but also complementary pieces like Spegal or fellow walk-on Davion Ervin-Poindexter. It’s about creating depth and competition.
As far as the top spot is concerned, McCullough isn’t in a hurry to put someone atop the depth chart. At all levels, he’s shown a willingness to rotate backs. Nobody has done anything to eliminate themselves from the discussion.
“Their job is to make it hard for us to make decisions, and those guys have been doing that,” McCullough said. “We’ve had different guys step up and show various levels that can help us win championships. That’s what I’m here to do.”
The pieces in McCullough’s room must match his confidence and ambition. Ellis, for example, has impressed with his determination to be an all-around back rather than a pass-catching specialist. “He’s committed to doing that,” McCullough added, “and I feel very confident about being able to fill those spaces to get him to where he needs to be.”
McCullough was also asked specifically whether Baldwin, who has flashed vision and burst, could be pushing for a starting job.
“Right now, I’m preparing all these guys to be the starter,” McCullough said. “Tim, the time he’s been out there, he’s looked good, moving around well, picking up everything we’re talking about as far as the reads and just some of the finer points of running back, to make him the dynamic guy he wants to be.
“But that goes beyond Tim and goes to the whole entire room.”
James has loads of potential in his 6-1, 225-pound frame. But after that big-time performance at Purdue, James had a more modest 2020. He carried the ball 32 times for 96 yards, very much behind Scott in the pecking order.
In their first phone call, McCullough sensed a willingness to learn.
“Just hearing him be honest about where he is and what he wants to do and being so open to some of the things, I just told him a couple of things as far as what I would bring to the table as far as some of your reads and different things,” McCullough said. “I got a pretty good reputation as far as making it easy for guys and giving them applicable drills that transfer over to 11-on-11 football. Just getting his buy-in as one of the leaders of the group helped, and then, obviously, he’s been in a position to sit back and see those things.”
For now, it’s just sitting back, because Allen said James needed to get some things “cleaned up” with a lower-leg injury after the season. He won’t take any hits this spring, as they set him up for a strong summer leading into the fall.
But this spring isn’t just about carries. It’s a time to learn, right at McCullough’s side. He’s taken to a new teacher.
“I think he sees a lightbulb going off with some things we’re doing and some concepts and different teaching approaches we’ve taken,” McCullough said. “He, as well as the other guys, have really jumped on and I’m excited about it.”