Given a chance, Navy's D.J. Sargenti finds a home as starting linebacker

D.J. Sargenti had seen other Navy football players climb similar depth chart hurdles during his first three years in Annapolis. Sargenti had watched how they often changed positions in order to get on the field for the Midshipmen.

The first time the Navy coaches came to Sargenti about switching positions was after his sophomore year, when they wanted to move the former high school quarterback to outside linebacker. Sargenti, who had run the spread offense at Ridgefield Memorial High in New Jersey, wasn't surprised.

"I kind of knew my time was coming to an end [at quarterback]," Sargenti recalled recently. "I wasn't picking up the reads coming to the line. I just put my head down and said, 'I'll find my place somewhere.' When I moved to outside linebacker that spring, even then I was still struggling."

There were times as a sophomore at Navy when Sargenti thought about playing elsewhere, but the bonds he had made "with my brothers here" kept him at Navy. After playing on special teams last season, the logjam at linebacker has finally cleared. Again, it required another change of position.

After being "one of the stars" of preseason camp, according to Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound senior opened the 2013 season as a starting inside linebacker. Sargenti made eight tackles, including tying for a team-high seven solos, in the Midshipmen's 41-35 victory last Saturday at Indiana.

This time, Niumatalolo is the one who isn't surprised.

"D.J. Sargenti is who we are as a football team — just a grinder, keeps his mouth quiet, busts his butt in the weight room, does what he has to do off the field, never gets in trouble," Niumatalolo said. "He was one of our best special teams' players last year. He's one of the strongest guys we have in the weight room. We had to find a way to get him on the field. [It's] his heart and his determination — he's relentless."

That much hasn't changed since Sargenti was in high school.

Charlie Trentacosti, who coached Sargenti, recalled how Sargenti kept a young, injury-plagued team together during his senior year in 2009 at the Bergen County, N.J., school. Sargenti provided most of the team's few highlights, throwing for more than 1,000 yards and rushing for more than 1,000 yards.

Despite his team's 1-9 record, Sargenti was voted the league's most valuable player.

"We were lacking in a lot of areas, but that never distracted him from his goal, he made sure everyone stayed on task no matter what the case he kept playing," Trentacosti said last week. "It proved out by where he is now. He never lost focus. His attitude was, 'I'm going to play the game I love, and it's going to take me where it takes me."

Trentacosti said Sargenti was "an exceptional quarterback. If you watched film, he was the guy who stood out wherever he was. When I sent out a highlight film [to college coaches], one coach called me back because they thought the film was speeded up and I said, 'No, that's him.'"

Told that his former quarterback is now starting at inside linebacker for Navy, Trentacosti said: "He can play wherever they put him if he puts his mind to it, which he does."

Rich Sargenti recalls the youngest of his three sons (and the family's second-youngest of four children) asking to be dropped off or left at the high school gymnasium after basketball games so he could work out.

There were times during his son's first three years at Navy when he could sense the frustration of not playing.

"I know that he banded together with some of the other guys [going through the same thing], a few of the guys decided to stay there but not play anymore," the elder Sargenti said Wednesday. "He thought he would stick it out."

After the game in Bloomington, Ind., last Saturday, the Sargentis met up for a few minutes before the team flew back to Maryland.

"He was feeling good," Rich Sargenti said. "He said, 'Dad, it was great to have played the whole game.' I asked him, 'Are you tired?' He said, 'I don't feel a thing.' I'm sure he was a little sore when he got up Sunday.'

In getting his chance toward the latter part of his college career, Sargenti follows other Navy linebackers such as Ram Vela, Jerry Hauburger (Eastern Tech) and, most recently, Keegan Wetzel, who last season emerged as the team's best defensive player after barely playing more than special teams his first three years.

"I'll never jump the gun and say I can do what they did, but I'm confident in my abilities and hopefully it works out," Sargenti said.

Apparently it has.

Notes: Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen came out of the season opener with "a few bumps and bruises" but in good shape for Saturday's home opener against Delaware (2-0). Dr. Jeff Fair, the associate athletic director for sports medicine, said at practice Tuesday that he didn't even have to go on the field during the game in Bloomington, the first time he can ever recall that happening in more than 40 years as a trainer at Navy and Oklahoma State. Junior slotback Ryan Williams-Jenkins, who has made a remarkable recovery after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in spring practice, has been cleared to play and is expected to return for Saturday's game.

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