morgantown — It comes slowly, this thing called greatness.
You are blessed with superior athletic gifts, but if you don’t pull the ribbon and tear open the wrapping paper you never get to play with them.
Sam James understands this, which is why he doesn’t simply go out on the field as a West Virginia wide receiver and live on his raw talent.
He won’t let himself fall into that trap and his coach, Neal Brown, won’t either.
“I coach him harder than anyone else on the team because he has a huge ceiling,” Brown said Tuesday as the Mountaineers got down to serious practice for Saturday’s game at Kansas State where they will look to break a five-game losing streak.
“I coached him that way since I got here. I liked his high school film. I liked the film the G.A.’s made when they scrimmaged last year. I liked the talent you saw in winter and you saw glimpses of what was there. That’s why I coach him like that. You have to coach your best players the hardest,”Brown said.
Twice it emerged in a season in which WVU is not exceedingly blessed at its other offensive positions. This redshirt freshman from the red clay of Georgia caught nine passes for 155 yards and a touchdown against North Carolina State and again last Saturday when he won the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week Award with 14 catches for 223 yards.
And, were it not for four drops and a couple of underthrown balls that could have been touchdowns, he well might have had the greatest day any WVU receiver ever had with 18 catches for about 330 yards.
“I get mad if I mess up because I want to be great so bad. I have to learn to tone that down and make it a positive instead of a negative,” he said. “You are fighting yourself and half the time you don’t win.”
This has led him to do as much work, or more, in the film room, in his house or in the office of a sports psychologist who is teaching him ways to improve his mental approach to the game.
And it’s working.
“What I’m most proud of him for is, for the first time in his career he was able to overcome negative plays,” Brown noted. “He was able to overcome a drop. He was able to overcome a bad run. First play of the game we got him the ball and that thing had a chance to get out. We had everybody blocked and he gains two yards.
“He knew as soon as he ran out of bounds it was a bad play,” Brown continued. “In the past, he might have been done for the day, but he came back and we gave him the ball on the next two plays. He made a real nice play on the second play and made an average play on the third, then he really got going.
“Then he had two drops back to back, but then he made a nice play with a huge run after the catch.”
James admits he was as raw as sushi when he showed up at WVU last year.
“You come into college like, you know, teenagers think they know everything. You come into college like you are ‘bad’ and you get out there that first day of practice and your world just crashes because you don’t know anything,” he said.
He accepted that.
“You got to look up to the older guys, to your coaches and ask them how do I do this or how can I get better?” he said.
And so you begin to learn things, how to get off the line of scrimmage, who to get the defenders hands off you.
“No one in high school ever put their hands on me,” he said. “So first time it was like, damn. I had to go to my receiver coach and ask him what do I need to do to get better.”
Brown let him know Saturday early against Texas Tech that he would be busy.
“Coach Brown came to me Saturday and told me we were going to have to throw the ball so you need to be open and ready to catch the ball,” he said.
The reason was because it became obvious early that the running game would not be there, which made it necessary to throw and hard to throw because defenders could focus on James.
He can’t wait to have a strong running game to go with the passing game.
“ I feel now once our running game opens up it’s going to be crazy,” he said. “We will be able to use play action and it will be one-on-one on the edge and you got to win those battles,” James said.
Now, if they can just get rid of the drops, although Brown sometimes wonders if they are concentrating too much on negatives.
“You have to be careful with dwelling on the negative,” Brown said. “He’s a kid who’s a redshirt freshman, just earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Week for the second time, had 14 catches for 223 yards .... that’s a lot to put on a redshirt freshman.
“I hold him accountable, but I’m excited about his future. I’ve defended him, just because of where we’re at as a program I think we have to put a little more on him than he was ready for earlier in the year.
“I think now he’s grown into the role. I think he is our top playmaker on offense at this point. The other players understand we’re trying to get him the ball schematically. You have to hold those guys to a higher standard ... and I do.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel