He arrived as a skinny plebe, weighing barely 170 pounds, and Jason Tomlinson never said much while forcing Navy's coaching staff to make him an immediate part of the football program's foundation.
Three years later, the once-wiry 6-foot-1 senior receiver from Kennedale High School in Arlington, Texas, is 210 pounds of muscle, deceptive speed and soft hands. He's the leader of a young receiver corps, the wide-out who relishes the excessive blocking required in Navy's run-heavy offense, the guy who just does things right.
And getting soft-spoken Tomlinson to talk much about his success is as unlikely as coaxing a complaint out of him regarding the dearth of passes that come his way.
"I'm just worried about us doing well," he said. "I like winning."
The youngest of five children in a family that emigrated from Jamaica nearly 25 years ago, Tomlinson has never been one to advertise his talents, which range from the artistic to being so gifted athletically that he earned 11 varsity letters at Kennedale and drew the attention of football recruiters from Stanford.
Dating to early in grade school, when he started to take after an older brother and an uncle who had a way at the drawing board, Tomlinson has lost count of the sketches he has created. He works mostly in pencil drawings, creating portraits and landscapes. He figures there's not much of a living in it, but after earning dual degrees in information technology and national security affairs and serving out his commission as a surface warfare officer, he might tap into his creative side by pursuing a master's in architecture.
For now, Tomlinson is focused largely on helping his senior class finish what it started - after three consecutive winning seasons, three bowl-game trips, two straight bowl wins and a combined 6-0 record against Air Force and Army - and doing it in his quiet, methodical, repetitive way. The right way.
"It's really easy to get a pessimistic attitude around here, but everything he says is positive. He makes people smile," senior cornerback Jeremy McGown said. "Jason also is as difficult to guard as most receivers I see on any given Saturday."
"[Tomlinson] is very humble. He never cusses," senior quarterback Brian Hampton said. "If I had a sister, I wouldn't mind him dating her."
"He knows he's not going to get the ball much, and he embraces that. He's all about blocking. He does everything full go," added junior wide receiver O.J. Washington, who starts opposite Tomlinson. "I just take notes and try to be like him on every snap."
"He's got high standards for himself," said Navy coach Paul Johnson, who sees the ideal combination of ability and work ethic in Tomlinson. "I don't ever remember having to get after him. If you've been around me for a while and you haven't been yelled at, you've done good."
To appreciate Tomlinson, watch him level a defensive back downfield and drill a linebacker with a crackback block. He combined to do both about a handful of times in last week's season-opening 28-23 win over East Carolina.
To appreciate Tomlinson, consider how smooth and unflappable he was as a freshman, when Johnson installed him as a punt returner, mainly because Johnson trusted him the most to secure the change of possession by avoiding turnovers. Tomlinson said he has given a punt back once at Navy.
And look at how, ever since that first season, Tomlinson has been able to beat one-on-one coverage consistently with that sneaky speed and turn rare receptions into big plays. A starter for all but two games since the beginning of his sophomore season, Tomlinson averaged 17.8 yards per catch through his junior year. He has led the Midshipmen in receptions for the past two seasons, including a career-high 25 catches for 445 yards last year.
Navy appreciates, perhaps more than anything, the constant Tomlinson represents. On a team hurt by injuries at his position, where sophomore Tyree Barnes (knee) is slowly getting healthy and junior Kyle Kimbro left the team with persistent knee problems, Tomlinson is always there. When a virus tore through part of the team in August, a severely congested Tomlinson never missed a preseason rep. Weeks go by in practice between dropped balls.
Tomlinson, the only on of his siblings born in the United States, likes to think he's just doing what he was taught. His father, Stanley, preceded the family by coming to the U.S. in 1977. He started out working 96 hours a week in a Jamaican bakery in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., earning $2.50 an hour, got a job working for a printer after that, and then ran his own press for 14 years before selling the business in 2003. He now drives about 2,500 miles a week hauling goods for a trucking company based in Texas.
"From the day he was born, he gave me no trouble. He doesn't curse, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink," Stanley said. "I don't have to raise my voice at Jason. The only time he ever gave me a problem was not cleaning his room."
Tomlinson is driven to help the Midshipmen keep up their tidy work on the field, where the senior class is now 27-12.
"In '03, we were just trying to win a game. We weren't thinking about how we were going to be remembered. You had so much time left it seemed like forever," Tomlinson said. "We set the bar. Now, there's so much emphasis on leaving our mark."
Matchup -- Massachusetts (1-0) at Navy (1-0)
Time -- 1:30 p.m.
TV -- CSTV (Internet only)
Radio -- 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series -- First meeting
Navy offense vs. Massachusetts defense -- With QB Brian Hampton and FB Adam Ballard setting the tone, Navy will look to establish its triple option - which produced 403 rushing yards last week - against a sound Division I-AA team. The Minutemen face Rhode Island regularly in the stacked Atlantic 10 , and they held that option team to six points in 2005, when UMass was the top-rated defense in I-AA. UMass features six starters who are either seniors or fifth-year seniors. Navy might need to hit the play-action passes Hampton missed last week to keep the Minutemen in check.
Navy defense vs. Massachusetts offense -- Stopping senior RB Steve Baylark is the first priority, and it won't be easy for the Midshipmen. Baylark is attempting to become only the third I-AA player ever to gain more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. LBs Rob Caldwell, David Mahoney and Clint Sovie and rover Ketric Buffin need to be strong against the run, and Navy needs to counter a strong UMass line featuring senior C Alex Miller and senior LG David Thompson, who have started every game of their careers. The Mids want to make third-year sophomore QB Liam Coen beat them.