CHARLESTON - First-year West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown needs players to step up to replace lost production from the 2018 season at more than few positions this season, but perhaps no position group needs new players to hit the ground running in 2019 more than the Mountaineer receivers.
Gary Jennings and David Sills, two of the best ever to play the position at West Virginia, are both in NFL camps now. Same for Marcus Simms, who originally entered the transfer portal, then opted for the NFL's supplemental draft before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars this summer.
Any team in the country would be hard-pressed to replace three players of that caliber and not have some drop in production. Brown, however, thinks he has a pretty good candidate to make a difference at receiver in redshirt freshman Sam James.
After appearing in four games last season, James was able to hang on to his redshirt and has four years of eligibility to grow under Brown, himself a former collegiate receiver at Kentucky and Massachusetts. During spring practice this year, James said he learned a lot from former teammates Jennings and Sills. Now it is time for him to began making his own mark on the program.
"It really helped me last year being able to play," James said. "I was able to see certain things. This year, it will be easier for me when I go in."
Count James among the many players who have put in serious work with WVU strength coach Mike Joseph. After spring ball, James checked in at an even 6-feet tall and 168 pounds. Now, just a few months later, he has grown to 182 pounds while maintaining the speed he showed off during spring practice. Being stronger will help James when he battles defensive backs down field or needs go across the middle for passes, but he said his game is still a speedy one.
"I've been working hard at weight training this summer in order to get bigger and stronger," James said. "For me, I'm a small dude. I'm not going to be physical at the line. So for me, I have to move quick and get away [from defenders] so they can't get their hands on me."
Brown singled James out in his late afternoon press conference as one of the offensive players to make a positive contribution during Saturday's full scrimmage.
"He's a guy that has got to be a player for us," Brown said. "I've talked about this before -- he's a redshirt freshman, but he's not allowed to play like a redshirt freshman. Where we're at, he needs to be a guy for us. He needs to be a guy that we can count on. He has really good speed. He has great ball skills, he's explosive. He has worked really hard. I've probably coached him as hard as anybody. He's a guy that is not allowed to have bad days, and my challenge to him is he has got to compete at a high-level every day if he wants to be the guy that I think he can be."
Just how good does Brown think James can be? It will take some time, possibly even a few years, but the new WVU coach thinks James has the potential to be mentioned alongside Jennings and Sills.
"Here at West Virginia, there has been a history if you look over the last 10 or 15 years of high-level receivers and he may be the next one of those guys, but it has to happen every day," Brown said. "I am pleased with where he is at, but we will continue to push him to reach what I think is a really high ceiling."