MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Sam James has prompted two questions more than any other West Virginia receiver this season.
The most common: “How the heck did he catch that?”
And following too closely behind: “How the heck did he drop that?”
The drops have had a habit of sticking with James more than the catches, and therein lies the problem. James believes if he moves on from them mentally, they’ll no longer be an issue.
“Knowing me, if I get frustrated I’m not going to play well,” James said. “I get mad a lot when I mess up, because I want to be great so bad. When I mess up, I get mad at myself and don’t want to talk to nobody.”
This has been a problem that has plagued the self-professed perfectionist since high school. His mistakes created self-doubt.
“I see a mistake and I want to fix it. Even in high school when I messed up I was like ‘I can’t do this anymore. I need to do something else,’” James said. “Just try and find different ways to be better. I have to tone it down and find a way to make [mistakes] a positive instead of negative.”
The solution might not come from his coaches, but a doctor. James meets with Dr. Dayna Charbonneau, who is in her third year as the in-house sports psychologist for the WVU athletic program. Through just two sessions, he’s already seeing some results.
“Stuff that happens in practice or a game, she told me to take a deep breath and say something to motivate myself,” James said. “That’s the one I really like to use every time something bad happens. Just a deep breath, however long I want it to be.”
Saturday’s game against Texas Tech provided an example of the method working. On the first play of the game, Austin Kendall hit James on a short pass that was designed to turn into an explosive play. The blocking was there to make it happen. But James misread what was in front of him, went the wrong way and only gained 3 yards.
Earlier in the season, that mistake alone might have been enough to derail his entire game.
“It was harder [earlier in the year] because I was really young and I thought I knew everything. In actuality, I didn’t,” James said. “I had to meet with some people about different ways to overcome [negative] plays. So now I can take a deep breath and forget about it.”
Sure enough, the Mountaineers fed James on the next two plays following his miscue and got him going.
Mountaineers coach Neal Brown admits that he may have placed too much on the redshirt freshman’s plate at the start of the season, but he felt he had to.
“Where we’re at as a program, we had to put more on him than maybe he could handle early in the year,” Brown said. “He’s growing into it.”
James was taken aback by how much of the offense was built around him going into the Big 12 opener at Kansas.
“I had all these plays coming to me in practice and I was like ‘Dang. I need to get ready,'” James said.
Even when he struggles, James remains the focal point of West Virginia’s offense. He has 27 more catches and 214 more yards than his next closest teammate, T.J. Simmons. Despite four bad drops, his 14-catch, 223-yard performance against Texas Tech ranked in the top five in program history for single-game receptions and receiving yardage.
“It made me feel they believed in me even if I had a hiccup,” James said of continually being targeted after his mistakes. “They trust I’m going to catch it.”
Brown knows he has a tricky situation to deal with in how he coaches James.
“I coach him harder than anybody on our team because he has a huge ceiling,” Brown said. “I’ve coached him that way since winter workouts. I liked his high school film and from when he scrimmaged last year as a redshirt. You have to coach your best players the hardest. He’s our top playmaker on offense.”
Brown mixes a lot of positive messaging in with that tough coaching, though, because of the mental side of the game. He needs James to believe in himself.
“I was harder on him than anybody in the receivers meeting this week. He could have had 18 catches for 300 yards,” Brown said. “But you have to be careful dwelling on the negative. Here’s a kid with 14 catches for 223 yards. Big 12 newcomer of the week. That’s a lot of burden to put on a redshirt freshman.”