Improving on special teams has been an area of emphasis for Neal Brown and his coaching staff since the 2021 season came to an end.
West Virginia brought in a new placekicker via the transfer portal, and decided to turn to one of the team’s best playmakers on offense to be one of the lead kick and punt returners.
That is Sam James, who has nearly 1,500 receiving yards in his collegiate career.
“Just being able to come back and do it again,” said James. “It has gotten a lot harder, because the kickers are obviously better than what I faced in high school.”
James returned both kicks and punts for Richmond Hill High School in Georgia. He also returned kickoffs for the Mountaineers as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
Now, entering his redshirt junior season, James once again finds himself as a featured part of West Virginia’s special teams plan. This time around, though, there has been a recent NFL return man helping in his preparation for the upcoming season.
“Thank God that Ryan is here to help with that,” James said Wednesday. “His college career, he had a lot of punt returns and things like that.”
The Ryan helping James is former five-year NFL returner and West Virginia native Ryan Switzer, who set punt returning records during his All-American career at North Carolina.
Before setting records the UNC, and playing for the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers, Switzer was a highly productive player at George Washington High School in Charleston. He won the prestigious Kennedy Award, as the top high school football player in West Virginia, back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012.
“Just picking his brain, listening to him, and listening to what he has to say has been great for me,” James added.
Fielding kickoffs is easier than fielding a punt, according to James, based on the flight path of the football, among other things. Correctly fielding a punt, on the other hand, does have more challenges.
“You got to judge off the end of the ball, depending on how it’s coming down, where you need to place,” said James. “If it’s coming down in a straight spiral, it’s going to go a little bit left. If it’s wobbly, it’s going to fall right, and it’s going to fall short.”
James has watched a lot of film to improve his knowledge and technique of the craft. Film study has been a big help in learning the different spins and bounces the football can take depending on if a left-footed or right-footed punter booted the ball.
Switzer has been key in providing knowledge, as well.
“My biggest thing was just tracking the ball off the punter’s foot,” said James. “I’ve gotten a lot better at that throughout camp, and throughout spring, because I caught a lot during spring.”
James is not only adding kick and punt return duties to his list of assignments this season, but he’s also undergoing a position chance as a wide receiver, as well. The redshirt junior is transitioning from being primarily used as an outside wide receiver to more of a slot receiver, another thing that Switzer knows plenty about.
For James, versatility is the name of the game.
“Being able to be in that role, for me, is just being able to show people that I’m more versatile,” James said. “I can help a lot more in the field, especially on special teams, and with returning and stuff like that. It’s been fun for me, honestly, to be out there and catch punts and return.”
James is listed as the leading kick and punt returner in the Mountaineers’ initial preseason depth chart. It is expected to remain that way when the season gets underway on September 1 versus Pittsburgh.