CONWAY — Richie Sampson admits he didn’t necessarily expect to find himself starting in the middle of Coastal Carolina’s defense as a true freshman like he did Saturday for the Chanticleers.
But then again, he wasn’t expecting to play defense in any capacity.
Recruited to Coastal as a running back, the former prep football standout from Kennett Square, Penn., was moved to the defensive side over the summer due to depth concerns and he’s developed quickly enough that he took over as the team’s starting free safety Saturday against Stony Brook.
“He’s been playing well, and we think he’s a very physical guy,” CCU defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin said. “We’ve been easing him in more and more each week, and he practiced well. The big thing he brings is he’s pretty physical.”
Sampson replaces junior Philip George, who was a returning starter. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman had a bit of an inauspicious debut as a starter, logging just one assisted tackle and getting fooled by a head fake on a Stony Brook touchdown pass in the Chants’ 27-21 loss Saturday.
But he’s still learning, and the coaches seem committed to letting him continue that process as a fixture in the lineup.
“I was a little nervous [Saturday], but I’m always nervous before games,” Sampson said. “As the game went on, I kind of settled in a little more. I realized I had to stop thinking so much and try to just play. It took a little while to get settled in. Towards the end, I felt a little bit better. But I’ll definitely be more confident this week.”
A two-way standout at Unionville High School, he rushed for 1,554 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior. He said Pittsburgh had been shown some interest in him after he had a nice showing at their team camp, but that ended when the Panthers replaced their coaching staff. Delaware and Richmond had also been in on Sampson until he broke his foot during his junior year of high school.
Then Coastal came calling. One of his high school coaches knew CCU first-year assistant coach Brandon Noble, and in the end Sampson chose the Chants over an offer to be a recruited walk-on at Stony Brook. And he’s quickly settled in since arriving in Conway.
Before the start of preseason camp, CCU head coach Joe Moglia asked if he’d be interested in moving to safety as it might offer him a chance at early playing time. He started at strong safety and was moved to free safety the Tuesday after Coastal’s loss to Appalachian State – and later that day he was told he was moving into the starting lineup as well.
“It’s worked out well so far,” Sampson said of the position change. “I love running back. I love scoring touchdowns, but whatever’s going to help the team.”
Meanwhile, George – who ranked sixth on the team with 40 tackles last season – is now working at cornerback and the coaches believe he has a future there.
“We want to see him at cornerback. Frankly we think he’s got better skill sets to play corner than he does safety,” Moglia said. “He’s a good athlete, he moves well, he can run, he can cover a guy one-on-one. ... He’s more suited for corner than he is coming up on internal run fits.”
Senior running back Jeremy Height did not practice Tuesday due to an injured foot, but Moglia is optimistic he’ll be on the field Saturday at VMI.
Height led Coastal with 89 rushing yards – including a 26-yard touchdown run – in 15 carries last weekend. It was his second-best performance of the season.
“It’s his foot. Yesterday he had trouble putting weight on it. Today it’s OK to put weight on it, but we didn’t want to push it,” Moglia said. “... I think he’s going to be OK, but we’ll decide that day by day.”
Running back depth
Of course, if Height can’t play, the Chants have plenty of depth behind him. They showed that Saturday while rushing for a season-best 201 yards.
Junior Lorenzo Taliaferro picked up 53 yards in just nine carries and junior Travis Small went for 32 yards in seven touches.
Small, the Chants’ leading rusher last year, was playing for the first time this season after being sidelined with a foot injury of his own.
CCU offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude likes the extra speed element Small brings to the offense, and all three backs will continue to remain involved. How those carries are divided is to be determined, though.
“That will pretty much be a game-time thing and all three of them will play and [we’ll] see who’s rolling along,” Patenaude said. “Sometimes we’ll sub people in and out for certain packages, but we’re blessed with having three above-average backs in this league. Travis has that little extra burst, I think Jeremy’s probably the most consistent doing everything and obviously Lorenzo is a big load when he gets going. We play in a lot of two-back sets, and so they’ll just keep mixing in and out and [we’ll] just try to play it by feel.”
Opposing coaches’ comments
Speaking on the Big South Conference’s weekly teleconference Tuesday, Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore had strong praise for Coastal (2-4, 0-1) in reviewing the Seawolves’ win.
“The teams we’ve played so far, next to Syracuse, they’re by far the best offensive team we’ve played,” Priore said. “And defensively, they are fast. They made some closures on some runs that normally get out for us in the first half. We were able to change some things up, but it was a good college football game. ... Compliments to them, and they will be very successful moving forward, I’m sure.”
VMI coach Sparky Woods, meanwhile, talked about his team’s upcoming matchup with the Chants this weekend in Lexington, Va., praising the play of Coastal senior quarterback Aramis Hillary and the speed of the defense.
The Keydets (2-4, 1-1) are coming off a humbling 32-14 loss Saturday at Charleston Southern after opening conference play with a win over Presbyterian.
“They do a very nice job of execution,” Woods said of the Chants. “They’ve played a very difficult schedule and they’re averaging like 20 first downs a game, so they’re moving that ball and it’s tough to match them offensively. Defensively, they’re very fast. ... They’ve been a very impressive football team. To watch them play against Stony Brook, was a great game to watch. So we realize that we’ve really got to raise our play to compete against a team as good as this team is.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.