His freshman year at Navy, he must have heard it a thousand times: Work hard, Eric, and wait your turn.
Problem was, Eric Roberts' turn never came.
"Each week I thought, maybe this week they'll throw me in there," says Roberts, a sophomore slot back. "[The coaches] would take me to all the away games, hoping to sneak me in somewhere, but it got more and more frustrating each week when I wasn't playing."
At first glance, Roberts' 2001 season sounds like that of a typical college freshman. Not many players can make a seamless transition from high school to college football right away, as the speed and the intensity get turned up several notches.
But Roberts finally got his chance last week against Southern Methodist, and when he responded by racking up 168 yards of offense (72 rushing, 96 receiving) and two touchdowns in the Mids' 38-7 win, suddenly everyone was wondering: How exactly was this kid not good enough to play last year, when Navy went 0-10?
"I can't really speak to that because I wasn't here," said slot backs coach Jeff Monken, who joined the Mids when coach Paul Johnson was hired from Georgia Southern in December. "I'm sure that he was just as athletic. It's tough to come in and play as a plebe, so maybe he wasn't prepared mentally or emotionally. All I know is that he's playing well now and doing all the things we ask our slots to do."
The slot position is unique at Navy in that it requires a player with game-breaking speed who also is willing to do plenty of dirty work. Roberts' responsibilities against SMU included catching a 69-yard pass (the longest play for Navy since November 2000), cut blocking 290-pound defensive ends and serving as a decoy on several of quarterback Craig Candeto's long runs. He'll need to do all that and more tomorrow if Navy is going to have any chance at upsetting No. 21 N.C. State in its home opener.
"I thought Eric played hard," Johnson said. "He did some really good things in the game and was very productive. He's one of the guys that we have that has good ability."
A lot of that ability was honed growing up in Miami, long before Roberts was a three-sport star at Hollywood Christian High School. Lower Dade County, where Roberts grew up, is one of the most football talent-rich areas in the country, and each year it's flooded by college recruiters looking for the next great player. As a result, kids learn how to compete at an early age.
"Right behind my house was a big field, so we'd always have these big neighborhood games of seven-on-seven," Roberts said. "Nobody was going to throw you the ball if you couldn't catch, so I learned how important that was right away."
Roberts' soft hands were on display against SMU when he made a leaping grab on the 1-yard line in the third quarter, holding onto Candeto's pass despite a wicked hit from the safety. Two plays later, he scored easily on a pitch from Candeto, beating a defender to the corner around the right end.
"He's not perfect, but he's not afraid go after guys and block or to make the big catch," Monken said. "If we were going to recruit more guys at this position, I'd like them to be like Eric, because he's the kind of player we're looking for."
Said Roberts: "That first game, I'd been waiting to get out there so long, I really wasn't nervous at all. I just tried to think about what I needed to do from play to play. I think not playing last year maybe helped me in some ways. It made me realize you don't have too many opportunities, so you'd better take advantage of them when they come along."
Next for Navy
Opponent: No. 21 North Carolina State (2-0)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Tomorrow, noon
TV/Radio: No TV/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: N.C. State by 16 1/2