Even before his senior year of high school began, Mason Graham knew that he wanted to play football at Navy. But Jabaree Tuani, Graham's teammate at Brentwood Academy outside Nashville, Tenn., wasn't sold on making the same military commitment. As much as Navy assistant coach Ashley Ingram was recruiting Tuani, Graham was too.

"Jabari and myself had always talked about playing somewhere together," recalled Graham, now a senior at Navy. "I was interested in the Naval Academy and he was kind of lukewarm to the idea. Once he came up here and saw the place and saw what it was all about, and I kept talking to him and egging him on, he decided to make the commitment."

Tuani's decision to play football at Navy, his quick ascent up the depth chart to become a starter as a freshman and his subsequent development as one of the country's best defensive linemen has led to a unique migration of football talent from the Tennessee private school of 700 students to Annapolis.


Get the Baltimore Football app for iPhone and Android

Along with Tuani and Graham, who is expected to start the 2011 season at outside linebacker after being used mostly on special teams his first three years, the Midshipmen have two other former Brentwood players on the current roster — backup sophomore nose guard Barry Dabney and freshman linebacker Josh Tate — and two others at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.

"I never heard of Navy as far as football until Jabaree and Mason came," said Dabney, currently playing behind senior Jared Marks. "After they came, Coach Ingram came around for me. "

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said having former Brentwood players succeed as Midshipmen makes it easier to recruit.

"There's an example for that recruit to see," Niumatalolo said. "One thing that helps is that there are so many questions at a place like Navy, so many things that people want to find out about. If you have someone at the academy [to ask] it helps."

It also helps that Brentwood produces so many Division I players.

According to Brentwood coach Ralph Potter, the four current Navy players are among "about a dozen" former players from the school now competing at either Football Bowl Subdivision or Football Championship Subdivision schools, including Maryland freshman punter Nathan Renfro.

Potter, who took over after Carlton Flatt retired five years ago as the winningest coach in Tennessee high school history, said that Tuani has long been a player others followed on and off the field.

"Because he was such a leader, others saw that it was an opportunity for them that otherwise would not have figured for them to go that far from home and into a military type of setting," Potter said. "Jabaree's success there — and Mason's success there — has made one or two a year take that road."

Potter was hardly surprised, recalling how he put Tuani in charge of a summer landscaping crew the summer before his senior year at Brentwood and others — including Tate — pitched in. Tuani would become the first African-American student body president at the nearly all-white affluent school, as well as the winner of the Founders Award as the school's most all-around student.

What Dabney sees now from Tuani is not much different from what he witnessed at Brentwood.

"He still leads by example," Dabney said. "Whenever we go live [full contact] against the offense, he's the first one making plays, getting excited, trying to get everyone else pumped up."

Like Dabney, Tate came to Navy because of Tuani.

"He's a positive role model, a guy I always looked up to in high school," Tate said after practice Tuesday. "I kind of looked up to him as a big brother in some ways."

That Brentwood has become something of a breeding ground for Navy football doesn't surprise those involved on either side.

Tuani recalled how Flatt had the same "hard-nosed, old-school "approach to the game as defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Dabney recalled how Brentwood's Dean of Students, Ken Bradford, was a former Marine Corps colonel.

"He tried to instill some of those values in us, but at the time we didn't really understand where he was coming from," Dabney said. "But after being here, I can see what his mindset was."

Ingram, who recruited all of the Brentwood players, says that the combination of a strong academic program and a competitive football team is also similar to what the Midshipmen have experienced.

"They do a great job developing well-rounded kids," Ingram said. "All of the guys we've got from there have done well in school here."

Graham said Brentwood prepared him well for what he encountered at the Naval Academy.

"I think the way Brentwood plays football and the mission of the school itself is perfect for the Naval Academy," Graham said. "Whether you have a guy like Jabaree, who's going to come in and perform immediately, or a guy like me or Barry Dabney who's going to take a little bit more time, either way it's a great model for the Naval Academy."

don.markus@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts