Neal Brown has made something clear in his first year at WVU: he’s willing to coach players hard.
That’s been the case this season with redshirt freshman wide receiver Sam James. Brown recognized James’s potential early on, and said he coached James hard over the offseason in order to tap into some of that potential immediately.
Brown has continued to press James throughout the season, and the young receiver is reaping the rewards — he leads all WVU receivers in catches and yards per game, and he’s the current Big 12 newcomer of the week after his 14-catch, 223-yard outing against Texas Tech.
“You have to coach your best players the hardest, and I think he’s, at this point, our top playmaker on offense,” Brown said. “Our players understand that we’re trying to get him the ball schematically, so I think when you’re trying to do those things, you’ve got to hold those guys to a higher standard, and I do.”
Different players respond differently to that type of coaching, but James appreciates that Brown wants to mold him into a better player.
“It’s just the little things I do, the little mistakes I do, he’s on me fast,” James said. “He told me before the season, ‘I’m gonna coach you harder than anyone else because I believe in you, and I believe that you can be something special here.’”
He added: “It means a lot to me because it shows that he believes in me.”
James came close to breaking two single-game program records against the Red Raiders. His 14 receptions are tied for second-most by a WVU receiver, while his 223 receiving yards rank fourth. But James could have shattered both those records if not for some drops, which have plagued him all season.
Even after those bad plays, James rebounded and continued to shine as one of the lone bright spots for the Mountaineers in a 21-point loss. That’s why his performance still reflects how much improvement he has made as a redshirt freshman.
“The most proud that I am of him is that he overcome negative plays for, really, the first time in his career,” Brown said. “He was able to overcome a drop. He was able to overcome a bad run.”
James said he’s still learning how to win the mental battles that come along with playing a skill position for a Power 5 program, but he thinks he’s making progress.
“You just gotta take a deep breath and forget about it, because you can’t let good plays or bad plays just replay in your mind, because they’re gonna dictate how you play the rest of the game,” James said.
During the preseason, Brown said James has the potential to become the next great Mountaineer receiver. While hard coaching has helped tap into that raw talent, James realizes he’ll have to win those mental battles consistently if he wants to write his name in more places in the WVU record book.
“That is the hardest, because your brain plays tricks on you all the time, and it’s so hard to overcome [those] things,” James said. “But once you do it, you’ll be great.”