Jerry Hauburger thought the opportunity would have come sooner, certainly by last season, when the logjam at Navy's deepest position on defense had started to clear. His coaches figured the same thing because Hauburger was bigger and faster than just about any outside linebacker the team had.
Then again, maybe it was meant for Navy's only player from Baltimore to start for the first time in his hometown.
Hauburger's road to M&T; Bank Stadium for Monday's season opener against Maryland was, by his own acknowledgment, a struggle, with enough delays and detours to induce those with a little less fortitude to simply give up.
But that is not who Hauburger is.
"He's always broken down barriers," said Mark Mesaros, who coached Hauburger at Eastern Tech in Essex. "He's a typical, tough east-side kid. The great thing about him going to Navy is that it fits him perfectly. He's structured and disciplined, and he responds to people who are structured and disciplined. When I think of the image of a Navy football player, I think of Jerry."
Hauburger recalled a conversation during his senior year in high school with Ralph Henry, the most recent Baltimore player to start for the Midshipmen. Henry, a defensive end who was a part-time starter for Navy from 2001 through 2003, had also gone to Eastern Tech.
Henry "said that it's different than anything else out there," Hauburger said. "He told me it's unique, you may not get the liberties and freedoms that you do at other schools, but it challenges you. Personally, I like challenging myself. I don't like taking the easy route. I'm glad I made this decision."
Unlike some who have a difficult time adjusting to the rules and academic rigors of academy life, Hauburger's progression stalled mostly on the field. The coaches were enamored of Hauburger's athleticism and size (6 feet 2, 220 pounds) but had others who demonstrated better technique and a showed a firmer grasp of the defensive system.
"He worked so hard, sometimes I feel like he was trying too hard," linebackers coach Keith Jones said this week. "He didn't focus and concentrate on what the calls were. He'd be here, and he was supposed to be there. [This year] I think it hit him, 'This is it.' It's going pretty good right now. I just hope it keeps going."
Added Hauburger: "I wasn't getting it as fast as everybody else, so that put a damper on me playing or not."
Hauburger said the thought of transferring never entered his mind. He had a couple of close friends on the team leave the academy for a variety of reasons, but he kept going, determined to get on the field. Becoming one of Navy's top special teams players late in his sophomore season, Hauburger was expecting to get playing time last year.
That didn't happen. In the home opener against Louisiana Tech, Hauburger partially tore his meniscus on a kickoff return. He tried to return a few weeks later, but then injured his hamstring. Every time he tried again, the hamstring popped.
"It set me back and demoralized me a little bit," Hauburger said of the injuries. "In the offseason, I vowed to get my hamstring better, my knee stronger, and I guess in a way, I'm glad it did happen this way. It's my last year and I can show what I can do, show how I can play."
The opportunity is certainly there, with Navy graduating all four of its linebackers from a 10-4 team. While Hauburger replaces Craig Schaefer, who started only as a senior and was the least heralded of the group, he understands the expectations of him when he hits the field against the Terps.
"They did some big things for this school, and I'm just going to do what they did," Hauburger said of a group led by Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer, Ram Vela and Clint Sovie. "I was on the sidelines watching them and saw what they did. Being out, you see a lot from the sidelines and how everyone plays."
Added Jones: "The thing with Jerry was to be patient. We always felt like he was a good enough athlete, but it wasn't transferring to the field. Special teams he did a great job for us. I guess you can say it's his time. He's got us all feeling pretty good about him. Hopefully he can keep it going."
An earlier version of this article misspelled Hauburger's name. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.