AVON, Ind. — If you spend any time around Ohio State 2019 running back commit Sampson James and Buckeyes running backs coach Tony Alford, you could understand why they come across as an unlikely duo.
Both are passionate about football and about finding ways to become more proficient in their roles within the game — and about improving as men off of the field. But that’s where the similarities seem to end.
James is reserved and serious, going about his business in a workman-like manner with a maturity that belies his age. He’s not a quiet kid necessarily, but not a conversationalist, either. He’s not shy to speak and is quick with a handshake and a hello, but James he also seems to have little time for frivolity.
Alford is a people person, someone who loves to smile, joke and laugh while he’s working. You can hear Alford as often as you see him and he’s never shy to speak his mind or have a conversation. It’s easy to understand why he is such an adept recruiter.
Despite their surface-level differences in personality, though, Alford and James have managed to build a fast and sure bond. James has been committed to Ohio State since mid-March and has continued to stay in touch with Alford daily.
“Coach Alford is my running backs coach, I love that guy. I definitely talk to him the most, we have a great relationship. He’s a great guy. He’s straight up, he’s not going to tell me any lies or B.S. me or anything like that,” James told Land of 10. “He’s straight up and I like that — I don’t want any playing around or a guy who will be different when I get up there. Everything I see now is what it is. He’s a real dude. He’s a great coach.”
Mark Bless, the head coach at Avon and James’ guardian, has been around since the beginning of the relationship between Alford and his star player.
“I think Tony Alford has done a tremendous job in the whole process, from Day 1 when he came in. We in our bye week, so we were just getting ready to start [state playoffs]. He came in on a day during that week and that was the first time I met him, so he developed a strong and good relationship with Sampson and his brother Nathaniel,” Bless said. “He sat down and talked life with him before anything football, which I think really impressed those two and resonated. As time went on, the relationship built up, but I think Tony did a tremendous job.”
It was the early investment of Alford’s time and energy into recruiting into the Indianapolis-area star that paid off in the end for the Buckeyes. While many recruits want to commit to Urban Meyer — a coach with a national brand who seems to come across as a rock star to many high school kids — James preferred to go directly to Alford when he was ready to join the class.
“I actually told my running backs coach first, Coach Alford. I remember that my brother was in there with Coach Bless and his brother. We were just talking about football and I kind of just let him know,” James said. “He was super, super excited and so was I. It was just a great moment, a happy moment for me. It was just great.”
An unofficial visit to Ohio State in March allowed James to spend time around several current Buckeyes running backs, as well as a few former players who happened to be in town. Shortly before James committed during the visit, he did his background research on Alford and found that his relationships do not expire when a player graduates.
“I talked to a bunch of former players there and they all love him. They all go over his house and meet his family and hang out there. Everybody I’ve talked with about him has loved him and said he’s a good dude,” James said. “I’ve talked with him and seen the other running backs there, they all love him.”
Of course, it helps for Ohio State that you’re talking about former players who have found enormous success. The impact of former Buckeyes running backs such as Ezekiel Elliott — who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie — and Curtis Samuel going to bat on Alford’s behalf really means something to James, who’s closely studied the Ohio State backfield.
“I’ve definitely watched the great running backs that have come through Ohio State in the past few years and that has definitely inspired me. Just seeing how great they are and how great they’ve become as football players and men, it really, really attracted me to their program,” James said. “I’ve been watching them on film and I love everything they do. I try to take everything I can from them off of what they do on film.”
Though he’s already firmly committed and doesn’t need to prove that to anybody, James plans to spend a significant chunk of his summer around the Ohio State program in order to grow closer to Alford and the current Buckeyes. He may even take the opportunity to work with his future coach in a camp setting.
“I definitely plan to get back there multiple times in the summer, just to spend as much time around the players and coaches as I can and get ready to be down there,” James said. “I could possibly hit a camp and then definitely go hang out some of the players and get a good feel for the place.”
The 247Sports composite rankings consider James to be the No. 151 overall prospect and No. 8 running back in the 2019 class. He is ranked No. 2 among all prospects in Indiana, trailing only Warren Central wide receiver David Bell. Ohio State seems to be the favorite for Bell and the two Mr. Football favorites in the Hoosier State could be “legends” together for the Buckeyes if James has his way.