New Coastal Carolina defensive coordinator Mickey Matthews is still getting to know the roster he inherited, but he didn’t need much time to see the potential in senior safety Richie Sampson.
That’s always been readily apparent to anybody watching the Chanticleers these last few years, with Sampson’s now twice-injured shoulder the only caveat in that regard.
But after missing the second half of the 2014 season and all of the 2015 season working his way back from a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Sampson has been practicing with the Chants this spring and figures to again be a key cog on the defensive side for the team next fall.
That’s what Matthews is expecting, at least.
“The only thing that’s going to keep Richie away from having a superior senior season is going to be health. His shoulder has to stay well, but he has a great feel for what we’re doing. It’s been very positive,” Matthews said. “He’s a good football player. He has all the ingredients you need for a big league free safety. He’s 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he can run. He just has a good feel for everything so I would really be surprised if he didn’t have a good senior season.”
Sampson was a second-team All-Big South selection as a sophomore in 2013 when he tallied 84 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three forced fumbles, 11 passes defended and one interception.
He first injured his shoulder late in his true freshman season, requiring surgery then, and seven games into his junior campaign while again performing as one of the team’s top defensive players, he tore the labrum again.
Undergoing a second surgery he knew the recovery process would take longer, but entering last season there was at least some hope he’d return to action at some point. It never came to fruition, though.
Every day I thought about wanting to play, but I think I made the best decision for the long-term.
CCU senior safety Richie Sampson on sitting out last season
Speaking earlier during the Chants’ spring session, Sampson said he is finally good to go now and no doubt benefited from that extended recovery.
“This is the best I’ve felt during spring ball my whole career. I think it’s probably the first spring ball that I haven’t been in a red jersey, so that’s exciting for me. I feel as good as I’ve felt,” he said.
It wasn’t until late last season that the Coastal Carolina coaches finally conceded what had become apparent, that Sampson was not going to return in time to help the Chants’ quest for an FCS national championship.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t constantly thinking about it.
“Every week I’d kind of think about it. I would have dreams about it just about every other night, about suiting up the last game of the season, national championship,” he said. “I’d think about things like that, but I really had to look long-term and look out for my health and what would be best for me and the team going forward. Every day I thought about wanting to play, but I think I made the best decision for the long-term.”
He also didn’t want to come back for just a few games and end his collegiate career that way.
“Towards the end of the year it started to feel pretty good, but we were so late in the season and some young guys had started to come up and help us so I thought it was just kind of best for all parties to slow-play it,” he added.
Taking a redshirt season allows him a better sendoff now – if his shoulder stays strong.
The catch is that while Sampson is healthy again and ready to contribute, the Chants are no longer contending for an FCS national championship. In beginning a two-year transition period to the FBS level, they are not eligible for the FCS playoffs this year (or an FBS bowl game next year).
Sampson said there is still plenty to play for, and plenty of motivation for his final college season.
“It’s going to mean a lot because of everything we’ve gone through as a program, switching schemes, switching coordinators, new coaches and just me personally working back from injuries. It’s going to mean the world to me,” he said. “This is kind of setting the tone for us moving out of the FCS and moving into the FBS and I think a lot of outside people aren’t too excited about that, but for us, as a team, that’s what’s important to us. For me personally, it’s my last year so I want to go out as best as I can.”
The Chants wrap up practices with the annual spring game on Saturday at 1 p.m. inside Brooks Stadium. The spring “game” is often less a game than a glorified practice open to the fans, and it’s unknown what veterans will be held out as a precaution or take it easy.
But at some point Sampson believes he’s ready to show everybody once again just how impactful he can be on Saturdays – and he can’t wait for that opportunity.
“I’m sure I’ll be a little rusty,” he said. “I haven’t tackled somebody in it feels like two years – I know it hasn’t been that long, but close.”
CCU Football Spring Game
When | 1 p.m. Saturday
Where | Brooks Stadium, Conway
What | Admission is free, gates open at noon, parking is first-come, first-served and coaches and players will be available afterward to meet with fans and sign autographs.