Look around a typical college football locker room, and you'll see about 110 high school football stars. Sure, there may be the occasional guy that wasn't an all-conference pick or didn't put up a ton of stats, but for the most part everyone on the Division I level was one of the best players on his high school team. As such, many relied on the natural physical gifts they were blessed with to dominate their opponents. For linemen, the usual result was a reliance on superior size and strength to shove guys off the ball or bull past them on the way to tackles and sacks.
This doesn't mean, though, that those players didn't work hard. Very few were going to earn a college scholarship without staying in shape and improving their strength and conditioning. It's simply a reflection of the level of the game, along with the narrowing of the talent level gap between opponents. And once they get to college, it can be a rude awakening when those guys in the different color jerseys are every bit as big and fast.
For West Virginia redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Jaleel Fields, the memory of those days at Aliquippa High School brings a fond smile to his face. It might be a bit wistful, too, because he knows the time when he can line up and consistently bully his opponent just by dint of being bigger and stronger are gone.
"I did overpower them pretty much [in high school]," Fields said after a recent spring practice session -- one of the first in which he was cleared to speak with the media."Now I have to use a lot of technique. But it's a great feeling to go against [better players] -- all those four-stars and five-stars."
It would be easy to expect that Fields -- heck, most players -- enjoyed those high school days of running rampant, and might miss that dominance. Fields, though, seems to relish the chance to measure himself against the tougher competition. That extends to his spot at nose tackle, where he is currently backing up Darrien Howard. Although he played a good bit of defensive end for Aliquippa High School, he takes pride in being the guy that absorbs the most contact on the field -- something that tough guys like the recently departed Kyle Rose and Howard have passed on to him.
"Playing in the middle is a tough position, so you have to be ready for it. There's much more contact than outside. But I'll stick with it. Playing inside is basically saying you are the toughest, and I like being the toughest on the defensive line."
Fields got a taste of that action as a redshirt freshman in 2015, which he finished with eight tackles, including five solo stops. A member of both the WVU and Big 12 Academic Honor Rolls, he's also wise enough to know where he has to improve.
"I have to work on my pass rushing moves. I can get better at that, and I need to just get better with my techniques. Darrien is teaching me a lot of things, but I have some big shoes to fill since Kyle left."
Fortunately, Fields isn't getting thrown to wolves all alone. With Howard in front of him, he won't have to play 50 snaps a game right off the bat. He can continue to learn, but he also knows that he has to be productive when he's on the field giving Howard a break. At a minimum, he needs to replicate Howard's stats as a backup a year ago. Those totaled 300 snaps, 16 tackles (three for loss) and some good pressure generated by collapsing the middle of the offensive line. He can't just be a placeholder -- he needs to have an impact when he hits the field.
In assessing that assignment, he displays the same quiet resolve, noting that he feels he is progressing but still has those areas to improve upon. Ask him directly if he thinks he's ready for the challenge, however, and the two word answer is delivered quietly, but with confidence.