Jeff Griffin must have been licking his chops on that overcast September afternoon.
A third team Freshmen All-American two years earlier, the massive right tackle had had his choice of BCS conference schools to attend coming out of high school, eventually settling on Winston-Salem and Wake Forest University.
At 6-foot-3, 290-pounds, Griffin was one of the rocks called on to protect quarterback Riley Skinner on a weekly basis, and had played a key role in the Demon Deacons' 3-0 start to begin 2008.
Not only were Griffin's Deacons ranked 16th in the country, but they were riding a six game winning streak going back to 2007, having established themselves as an early favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. Having taken on pass rushers from Mississippi and Florida State over the previous two weeks, one can only imagine Griffin's excitement when a skinny, six-foot-nothing true freshman lined up across from him on Wake's first offensive drive against Navy.
At 2-2 and having not beaten a foe ranked in the AP Top 25 since 1985, the Midshipmen could not have been bigger underdogs going into that afternoon. No more apparent was the supposed disparity in size and talent between the two teams than at the point of attack, where the veteran Griffin held a 50 pound and three inch advantage over the youthful Navy end. It must have seemed like an ideal ‘breather' for Griffin, who could recharge his batteries against the lowly freshmen before gearing up for Clemson the very next week.
A mismatch it was. The only problem for Griffin, however, was that by the end of the afternoon the 33,173 fans at BB&T Bank field would recognize that he was the player who was clearly overmatched.
From the first snap of the game until the last snap, Navy defensive end Jabaree Tuani played flawlessly. Exploding off the line with the tenacity and speed of a veteran player, Tuani not only outworked Griffin, but he outmuscled him as well. When it was all said and done Tuani had recorded six tackles (including two for a loss), a forced fumble, and logged nearly as much time in the Wake backfield as Deacon running back Brandon Pendergrass. More importantly, Navy had come away with one of the greatest upsets in program history, topping Jim Grobe's team by a final of 24-17.
And to think that just eight months earlier the freshman from suburban Nashville had nearly went to Furman. Yes, Furman.
"Going into my senior season in high school I started to get some looks, but because of my size I didn't get the heavy Division I looks," recalls Tuani, who admits that the 6-foot-1 designation he receives in Navy's game program may be a little generous. "So during my senior year, Division I-AA schools like Furman started to recruit me."
With decision day looming in late January 2008, Tuani had all but signed with the Paladins, with an official visit to Greenville, South Carolina meant to seal the deal on the defensive end's collegiate future. That was until an unexpected phone call introduced a new team into the recruiting mix, and began a series of events which would lead Tuani on an unlikely path toward college football stardom.
"I was on my weekend visit at Furman, and my high school coach called and told me to try to hold off on committing," recalls Tuani. "I was like ‘are you sure?' and he said ‘I'm pretty sure,' and told me to give it one more week. So I told the Furman coach I wanted to explore my options a little bit and to give me another week."
The last minute interest turned out to be from Navy assistant Ashley Ingram, who had just taken a job in Annapolis after serving as offensive coordinator at Bucknell University for the previous two seasons. Ingram, who had recruited Tuani briefly while at Bucknell, was working on a hot tip from Navy defensive line coach Dale Pehrson, who had been blown away by the images of the explosive pass rusher he had seen in a recent video tape sent in by Brentwood Academy (TN) coach Ralph Potter. Noticing that Tuani was not only an outstanding football player but also an exceptional student and leader, Pehrson scrambled to get on the phone to put in an offer to the prep star.
"We got [Jabaree's] tape fairly late, but when I watched it for the first time it took me about three plays to figure out that he was a pretty good player," recalls Pehrson, who doubles as Navy's recruiting coordinator. "He was very explosive, played hard, and played in a school that plays real quality football; so he was playing against some ‘for-real' types of players. He was just a really good athlete and real good kid, and him being the school president, it was kind of a no-brainer. Once we saw him on tape – and I'm serious about the watching three plays part – I called coach Ingram and said to offer [Jabaree]. It was a pretty easy evaluation on our part."
With an offer from Navy in hand, it wasn't long before Tuani boarded a plane to Annapolis to inspect the Academy for himself. Impressed by "the whole package" at Navy, the school president of Brentwood Academy decided to forgo his offer at Furman and instead commit to the Midshipmen. While he made no secret of his desire to succeed in Annapolis, even the highly driven Tuani couldn't have imagined what lay in store for him just eight short months later.
Flash forward to September 20th, 2008. A Navy defense which had given up 41 points to Duke the previous week now found itself locked in a close game against Rutgers, with the unit struggling to contain a furious Scarlet Knight comeback attempt. Worse yet, starting defensive end and senior leader Michael Walsh had hobbled off the field with an injury. While Navy would eventually hold on – securing the game thanks to a fourth quarter Ross Pospisil interception – the Mids still faced the daunting task of having to replace their best defensive player at perhaps the most inopportune time of the year. With several experienced backups waiting in the wings on the depth chart, most Navy fans assumed the challenge would fall on juniors Billy Yarborough and Kyle Bookhout to fill in for Walsh. Yet when the decision was made prior to the Wake Forest game to go with a previously unknown freshman, no player (or fan for that matter) was caught more off guard than Tuani.
"The coaches didn't say I was going to start, but then once we got to the Wake Forest game – after our meeting and before we got to the stadium – coach told me to get ready," recalls Tuani. "He said ‘don't worry about anything, just go out and play,' and I was just like ‘uh, wow…'"
Despite Tuani's initial shock at being given the starting job, Pehrson says that he had confidence in the freshman, who for weeks had shown a relentless motor and high football ‘IQ' during practice. Still, even the confident Pehrson admits he was surprised to see Tuani effectively bull-rush the veteran Griffin, pointing out that his undersized defender exceeded even the highest of expectations.
"Some kids get in that first game and they don't remember what day it is," says Perhson, chuckling. "But with Jabaree, it was like he had played for three years. I wasn't afraid with starting him, but I was very happy with how he handled the whole transition."
Tuani's ascendance to a starting position on Navy's line could not have come more out of left field. The idea that freshmen – or ‘plebes' as they're called at Navy – lack both the physical and mental wherewithal to contribute during their first season has been almost dogmatic for much of the modern era. While the move up from high school to college is hard enough for most players at civilian institutions, the physically taxing summer military training and the academically challenging curriculum at Navy make it almost impossible for freshmen to become impact performers.
Tuani was clearly the exception to the oft-cited rule. Playing in Navy's 3-4 defensive scheme – often against dramatically bigger and more highly recruited tackles – the freshman managed to pace the Midshipmen with a team high nine tackles for a loss in 2008. His forced fumbles against Wake Forest and Air Force were key in helping Navy come away with close wins, while his 42 total tackles were second on the defensive line behind nose guard Nate Frazier's 44 tackles. It was a resume which opposing coaches took notice of throughout the year, earning Tuani ECAC Rookie of the Year honors.
That Tuani accomplished so much as a freshman speaks volumes to a number of factors, most notably his high football IQ and tremendous physical talent. It didn't hurt, says Pehrson, that Tuani was also the beneficiary of tremendous high school coaching.
"Jabaree is very strong for his age, and he is physically pretty developed," explains Pehrson, who says that the 19-year old Tuani is "Nate Frazier strong already" in reference to Navy's 23-year old nose guard. "[Jabaree] seemed to grasp what we were trying to do very quickly, and he very rarely makes mistakes. So football knowledge seems to come very easy to him. It all contributes; the high school he played at, the guys that were here and who were helping him, and the fact that he is a very smart kid and is very intelligent."
Aside from his physical and intellectual gifts, Tuani credits his ability to beat the odds and become an ‘impact' rookie performer at Navy to a strong work-ethic instilled by his father, Leon.
"My dad raised me and would tell me that ‘whenever you do something don't be complacent with not being first,'" explains Tuani, who reports that he has bulked up to 260-pounds for the 2009 season. "So coming up here I knew I just wanted to play. I didn't think I was going to play my first year but I ended up going all out at practice and worked out hard."
Tuani insists that he was no more talented than a number of freshmen on Navy's 2008 roster, but says that when it comes to earning playing time at the Academy, it's a question of mind over matter.
"Some of the other freshmen guys were actually on the same level but I don't know if they had that mindset of trying to push themselves. I think maybe some guys would say to themselves that they weren't going to get to be on the field so it was no use working so hard…But I just kept telling myself that I was going to get on the field and I was going to keep working hard no matter what."
For as good as the Tennessee native was a season ago, Pehrson predicts that the sophomore has the chance to be even better in 2009. Saying there is "no doubt" that Tuani has just as much, if not more, potential than any player he has ever coached, Pehrson compares Tuani to a combination the best defensive linemen to play at Navy during the last decade.
"Jabaree is sort of a blend of about four or five guys who were probably the best players that I have had since I've been here," says Pehrson, who equates the sophomore's penchant for big plays with former Navy end Gino Marchetti. "He has really good strong hips like [former Navy defensive tackle Babatunde] Akingbemi did, and he is very quick like Nate [Frazier]. So he is really a nice blend of a bunch of guys who I've thought were really good players here over the years."
Having already enjoyed one of the best seasons by a Navy defensive end in recent history, Tuani expects to join tackle Nate Frazier and ends Matt Nechak and Michael Walsh in giving the Midshipmen their deepest and most talented defensive line in years. While the three man competition for the two defensive end spots on Navy's line figures to remain heated throughout the summer months, Tuani says that there is no love lost when it comes to his relationship with Nechak and Walsh, and says that all three players expect to see significant playing time in 2009.
"I am really close with all of the guys," Tuani says in reference to his fellow defensive linemen. "We talk all the time and stuff like that. We haven't even really discussed stuff about who is going to start...we know all of our linemen are going to play, and if Walsh gets the start I still expect to play…but like I said we are tight as a unit and we can talk about anything."
With a full year under his belt and a great relationship with his teammates and coaches, Tuani now looks forward to another stellar campaign in 2009.
"I am going to play my heart out for our guys and they are going to play their hearts out for me, so we are going to do some big things this year."
Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.