The former four-star recruit, who finished his career at Louisville, has a chance to be among the top five safeties selected in the NFL draft.
As the cameras zoomed in on James Sample getting down in his stance to run his first 40-yard dash at the NFL combine on Monday, he was met with the description common for every off-the-beaten-path prospect who finds his way to Indianapolis.
“A sleeper,’’ said Mike Mayock of the NFL Network as Sample toed the line.
That’s not what anybody was saying about Sample four years ago this month, though, when he signed with the University of Washington as one of the perceived gems of Steve Sarkisian’s second full recruiting class.
NFL combine glance
What happened: Safeties and cornerbacks conducted on-field drills in what was the final day of the combine.
The big story: UConn cornerback Byron Jones, who came into the combine with some questions following shoulder surgery a month ago, made a fast impression with some jaw-dropping workout numbers Monday, including a 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump and a vertical leap of 44.5 inches. And Michigan State’s Trae Waynes, already regarded by many as the top cornerback in the draft, only reinforced that thinking with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.31 seconds, the best for any defensive back.
Peters runs 4.53 40: Washington’s Marcus Peters, perceived to have quieted some concerns about his character -- specifically his dismissal from the team in November -- during interviews here, ran a 4.53 40. That was slower than analysts expected but not necessarily worrisome. Still, observers will be watching to see if Peters improves on that mark when he is expected to participate at UW’s pro day April 2.
What’s next: With the combine over, teams will continue to focus on draft preparation as well as getting ready for the beginning of the free-agency period March 10.
A graduate of Grant High in Sacramento, Sample was one of three players from that class who had played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl shortly before signing day. Sample, in fact, committed to UW during the game, saying “U-Dub, baby’’ as he picked up a Huskies hat and put it on his head on national TV.
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The other future Huskies playing in the game that day were in-state products Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams.
Seferian-Jenkins went on to leave UW early and was a second-round pick in 2014 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Williams, though maybe not quite reaching the heights his high school honors might have suggested, still finished with the third-most catches in UW history (162).
Sample? Even die-hard Huskies fans may have trouble remembering him ever being on the field for the Huskies.
He played in five games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, making just one tackle, before transferring. He then spent a year attending a junior college at home without playing before re-igniting his career at Louisville, where he was a starting strong safety in 2014 for a team that finished ranked No. 24 in the country.
The 6-foot-2, 209-pound Sample left UW, he said during an interview at the combine, because he said he was told by then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox that he would have to move to linebacker if he wanted to see the field. Even then, he was told, his prospects might be iffy.
“I sat down with (Wilcox) and asked him, ‘Would I be able to compete for the job in the spring?’ ’’ Sample said of a meeting after the 2012 season. “And he told me, ‘Honestly, no.’ ’’
Coincidentally, one player standing in Sample’s way was one of his best friends, Shaq Thompson, who was a year behind Sample at Grant High but became a starting linebacker the minute he came to UW in 2012. (On Saturday, during his podium session at the combine, Thompson mentioned Sample’s presence on the roster as a reason he signed with the Huskies.)
It also hadn’t helped that Sample came to UW as somewhat damaged goods, though he said no one knew the extent at the time.
Sample said a shoulder injury he suffered in high school that bothered him throughout his first season at UW initially was diagnosed as a deep bruise. He felt pain in the shoulder during the first game he played at UW, as a freshman in 2011 against Eastern Washington, and played just one more game that season.
“It was hard because I knew something was wrong,’’ he said. “When you can’t raise your arm above your head or to the side — something is wrong. But they kept telling me it was a deep bone bruise and I was like, ‘Nah, I’ve had a bone bruise before.’ ’’
He said he eventually was diagnosed as having a torn labrum and had surgery after the season. By then, the UW defensive coaches who had recruited him were gone in the changeover from the fired Nick Holt to Wilcox.
“I just wasn’t going to play,’’ Sample said. “I probably would have just been a special-teams player, and that’s it.’’
He left after playing in just three games in 2012. He’d used two years of eligibility at UW, so he sat out the 2013 season attending classes at a local junior college.
He ended up at Louisville largely due to the presence of former UW linebacker Cort Dennison, a teammate of Sample’s at UW in 2011 and now a graduate assistant with the Cardinals who recommended him to coach Bobby Petrino.
Otherwise, Sample said, he had no FBS offers, far different from all the letters and calls from coaches he’d received in the fall of 2010.
But at Louisville, the Sample who was a four-star recruit began to emerge. He led the team with 90 tackles, forming what some called one of the better safety combos in college football playing alongside Gerod Holliman, who tied an NCAA record (held by former Husky Al Worley) with 14 interceptions.
“I feel like I proved a lot to a lot of people because a lot of people doubted me back home,’’ he said. “And I feel like coming to Louisville I had a lot to prove to myself, that I could still compete at a high level and make a name for myself.’’
He had a year of eligibility left but decided to declare for the draft. Though some analysts initially were dubious about that move, Sample’s timing might have been prescient, as this is regarded as a weak crop of safeties. His stock has risen enough that some say he could be taken among the top five at the position.
“There’s been a quiet buzz about this kid because he’s a more solid player (than Holliman),’’ Mayock said during the broadcast Monday as Sample ran 40s of 4.56 and 4.62 seconds.
And under the radar has worked well for Sample.