From a distance, Navy freshman Jabaree Tuani appears to be the prototypical defensive end playing big-time college football, considering the havoc he has already caused for opposing backfields this season. It's only close up that one gets to see how small Tuani really is for someone at his position.
Though Tuani, 6 feet 1, 242 pounds, has plenty of company in that category among his teammates, he is still a rarity in Annapolis: the first plebe to start for the Midshipmen on the defensive line since Bwerani Nettles did a decade ago.
Shortly after coming into the season opener against Towson, Tuani sacked Tigers quarterback Sean Schaefer and eventually took over as a starter for his team's upset last month at then-No. 16 Wake Forest when senior Michael Walsh sat out with a toe injury.
Going into Saturday's game against No. 23 Pittsburgh at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Tuani has played a significant role in a suddenly respectable defense that has helped the 4-2 Midshipmen win three straight games.
"During training camp, I was kind of questioning: 'Can I really play with these guys? Will I be able to travel?' " Tuani said. "As the year progressed, I was like, 'I know I'm undersized, but I can compete with the best.' "
Said Navy defensive line coach Dale Pehrson: "He's a very smart football player, he came from a really good [high school] program, he catches on very quickly. He's got a long way to go still, but he's making tremendous strides for a plebe."
If the second-half performance against the Tigers gave Tuani the confidence that he could play right away on the college level, it was what he did against the Demon Deacons that solidified his spot on the defensive line.
"I knew that he had that in him, but I had no clue that he'd play that well in his first outing [start]," Pehrson said. "That was a big game and for him to handle the mental part the way he did. He had no missed assignments; he just really did a nice job."
Tuani had six tackles, second on the team, including two for losses. He continued that the following week at Air Force. Tuani led the team with eight solo tackles, tied senior safety Jeff Deliz with a team-high 10 overall and also forced a fumble, one of two he has caused this season.
Tuani's 22 total tackles this season are the most among Navy's defensive linemen, and his 4 1/2 tackles for losses and 1 1/2 sacks lead the Midshipmen.
"It's very impressive," junior defensive end Matt Nechak said of Tuani. "I went to NAPS [the Naval Academy Preparatory School], he came straight in. I didn't see the field until I was a sophomore. He came straight in on the D-line, which is very unusual, and is producing a lot. It's very, very rare."
It's also more impressive when you consider his size.
But it's nothing new to Tuani, who played in a competitive private school league outside Nashville, Tenn. What is new is that he is getting noticed, something that eluded him while at Brentwood Academy. He was recruited by a couple of Southeastern Conference schools, but not seriously.
"They all said the same thing: Size was a factor," Tuani said, referring to Football Bowl Subdivision schools that passed on him, including Vanderbilt and Mississippi. "Obviously I didn't have it. Navy gave me a chance. I definitely had to take it."
Not that Tuani was overly enthusiastic at first about becoming a Midshipman.
"At first I said, 'No one wants to do that in life.' I didn't want to waste five years [after college]," he recalled. "I talked to my family, and they said, 'Give it a chance.' I definitely would not have gotten in without football, but I'm definitely going to use my advantages that football got me. Whatever I do after football is going to help set me up for life."
Nor has his adjustment to academy life been easy.
"Plebe year at Navy is the hardest because you have people breaking you into the Navy lifestyle," Tuani said. "I try to block it all out. When you come through those gates to practice, Coach tells you, 'The other team is not going to care.' It's definitely kind of hard. You have three things to worry about - the military side, football and academics - all on the same plate."
Note: : Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said yesterday that senior quarterback Jarod Bryant would start again Saturday.
NO. 23 PITTSBURGH @NAVY
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: CBS College Sports Network
Radio: 1090 AM
Line: Pittsburgh by 3 1/2