James Peoples and Sam Williams-Dixon

More Than Just Talent Separates James Peoples From The Rest

James Peoples could still be back at Veterans Memorial High School, wrapping up his senior year back home in San Antonio if he wanted. But as has been the case for a while now, Peoples chose to stay ahead of the curve.

A four-star running back prospect, Peoples is one of 16 true freshmen who have enrolled early this year for the Buckeyes. Peoples is now in his fourth month on the Ohio State campus and headed into his final week of spring practice.

The first camp can be difficult for any first-timer, but Peoples has handled it well. He has had some outstanding moments in practice. Those who know him best aren’t surprised because they’ve seen the work that he put in to get to where he is today.

The first time Veterans Memorial head coach Robert Irvin really took note of him was prior to Peoples’ freshman year in 2020.

“I remember him being a really good, fresh, good-looking kid physically for a ninth grader,” Irvin told Buckeye Huddle. “And I remember watching him in the summer, here in freshman football practice and thinking this guy’s a really good freshman football player.”

It wasn’t until the end of Peoples’ freshman year, however, that he was brought up to the varsity squad for the playoffs. His first action came in a loss to a team that would go on to play for the state championship.

“I think he had like 92 yards rushing on nine carries and a touchdown,” Irvin said. “And that was when, as a coaching staff, our heads kind of turned and said, ‘Man, this guy, he might actually be pretty special.'”

Stepping Up, Breaking Out

After impressing in his first opportunity, Irvin and his staff were further convinced that James Peoples would be able to help out the following year as a sophomore.

They weren’t going to ask too much of him, however, because they had a returning All-District running back in senior John Solitaire. Solitaire was going to be the starter and Peoples would be the backup. There would also be times when the two would share the backfield together.

Unfortunately for Veterans Memorial and Solitaire, a severe hamstring injury to the senior early in the season shelved those plans. The expectations that Peoples could be eased into things went out the window, but the sophomore responded.

“He was kind of thrust into the role due to an injury to an older kid, and really, really performed well,” Irvin said. “We had a big district ball game, kind of like a playoff-determining game, whether or not we might get in or they might get in, and James carried us. We scored 62 points and played really well.

“But in the fourth quarter, we were up and we’re trying to run the clock and we just handed it to James over and over and over and I just remember thinking what kind of a workhorse he was. He wasn’t afraid as a 10th grader to have the ball in his hands when it mattered most. And ‘keep giving me the ball’ and keep getting first downs.”

Eventually Peoples popped a long touchdown that was the dagger in a 62-46 win.

“And so it was like, ‘Man, we’ve got something really special,'” Irvin said.

It was after his sophomore season that Peoples started to gain attention. But it wasn’t until an outstanding performance at TCU’s camp that every college coach was calling and some big-time offers started to roll in.

It was just the beginning.

The Next Step

After rushing for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore, James Peoples grew more confident as a player and more prominent as a leader.

The responsibility was a new role, but it was one that he had long been equipped to handle.

“I think one of the things that separates James, obviously, he’s extremely talented, but the country is full of really talented football players like him. I think what separated James was all of the other things,” Irvin said.

“How he did good things in the classroom. He was an A-B student. How coachable he was. You know, it says something when you’re very best player that all the kids know he’s the best player is being coached hard and taking the hard coaching, the intense coaching, and being coachable and doing the things that we asked him to do.”

It was exactly the kind of example coaches want in their programs. When teammates see the best player on the team held to a high standard, they can’t be expected to meet anything less. Most coaches who have been around long enough eventually end up with some stories about talented players who start to change after garnering significant attention. That was never the case here. This was never a cautionary tale.

“I think his ability to allow us to coach him hard and hold him to a high standard was special,” Irvin said. “I know you’ve been around big-time recruits. You know how some of them are, they start getting big offers and they feel like they’re too good for the high school team and they can do what they want. They don’t have to do certain things. They feel special. James, not one day did he act like that through the whole process.”

Why Ohio State?

It was midway through James Peoples’ junior year that Ohio State finally jumped in with a scholarship offer. Over the next two months or so, Miami, Penn State, Oklahoma, Oregon, USC, and Alabama were some of the programs who did the same.

The following spring, Peoples committed to Ohio State. Despite already holding offers from in-state schools like Texas and TCU, he decided to venture out — but it wasn’t into the unknown. Peoples’ parents grew up in Ohio and he was brought up as an Ohio State fan.

“He has roots there,” Irvin said of OSU. “And when he went to the Ohio State camp and was eventually offered, we kind of knew that at that point they were probably going to be — if not the top, one of the tops. So that’s one of the things, is just his connections to Ohio and Ohio State.”

It wasn’t just because Ohio State was the favorite of the family, however. Former Buckeye running backs coach Tony Alford also put in the work to build a relationship with Peoples and his family.

“I know Coach Alford has left to go to Michigan, but he really invested a lot of time in building a relationship with James in the recruiting process, and I think that that really won James over and won his family over,” Irvin said.

On The Field

While Robert Irvin will tell you that James Peoples is everything you could want from a player off the field, it’s his performance on the field that had every school in the nation wanting to talk.

Those two characteristics are completely intertwined, however, because the desire to be exceptional isn’t just something that kicks in when the lights are lit. There is no question the football skill is there, but so is the discipline.

“I think the thing that motivates James the most is just his competitive spirit,” Irvin said. “He wants to win, he wants to be the best. So he’s always working on his craft. He’s a guy that’s going to do the extra things and go above and beyond to make sure that he has an opportunity to be successful to help the team win.”

And yet when he is on the field, it’s time to buckle up and make sure your arms and legs remain inside the ride the entire time because when it comes to strengths and weaknesses, there are many more of the former than the latter.

To hear his head coach tell it, the Buckeyes have a complete tailback on their hands.

“His biggest strength from a football standpoint is his ability to make plays when it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a play to be made,” Irvin said. “He’s a physical, downhill runner, but he also has enough speed to get the ball on the edge. His football IQ is pretty high, so he understands. Like at our place, he understood the complete offense and we were able to do a lot of things with him just because he was so smart. We put him in the slot some.

James Peoples catches a pass from classmate Air Noland.

“Another strength for that guy that probably goes a little under the radar is he was probably the best receiver on our team, on top of being the best player overall. He has unbelievable hands. He can make difficult catches, which is rare for running backs. Running backs typically aren’t able to do that. So throwing him the ball out of the backfield or going into empty sets and putting him in the slot and running good routes against linebackers where it’s a mismatch, those were things we were able to do with him that I think were real strengths.”

The Last Word

The scholarship offers, highlight videos, and statistics all detail what kind of football player James Peoples is, but that has never determined who he is. That’s one of the reasons coach Robert Irvin is sad to see him go, but excited to see what is next.

“He’s a great human being,” Irvin said. “We put a lot of value on what kind of person you are outside of football here. And we don’t usually trust or count on people at the varsity level for us unless we can trust him on a Saturday night. And he has been that since I’ve known him. He’s very focused. He knows what his goals are.”

In the Veterans Memorial football program, the coaches say that they want their players to be great people, great students, and great athletes — and in that order.

“He typified that for us,” Irvin said. “First, he’s a great human being. Second, he was a great student in the classroom. Never got in trouble. Behavior was always great. Always took care of his schoolwork.

“And third — he was a heck of a football player.”

Go to discussion...