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Navy’s undersized Tuani achieves in a big way

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The parade of high-profile college coaches zipped in and out of the Brentwood Academy in suburban Nashville in 2007. Most came to see Chris Jordan, a running back who would eventually land at Alabama.

Not nearly as many schools gave more than a passing glance to his teammate Jabaree Tuani, an undersized lineman whose frame belied his strength.

"It was like 'I'm right here - give me a chance,' " the Navy defensive end recalled this summer before breaking into a big grin. "It's all right. I understand."

And thats Tuani in a nutshell. Persistent. Easy-going. Smart. And, most importantly, capable of maximizing the opportunities presented to him.

What was potentially an unheralded career at Furman is now a massive role with the Midshipmen (2-1), who play host to Air Force (2-1) on Saturday. Tuani is a mainstay, entering the first of two games against service academies with twice as many starts (38) as anyone else on Navy's roster.

And if he was a bit bigger than the 6-foot-1, 265 pounds hes listed at?

"If he was a couple inches taller, we wouldn't be talking to him," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "He'd be at a BCS conference school. There's a ton of people that came and looked at him, because on tape he's a heck of a football player and they'd find out 'Oh, that's how tall you are.' People backed off."

Not the Mids. Assistant coach Ashley Ingram, fresh off his hiring at Navy, discovered Tuani during a recruiting trip through Tennessee. Tuani wrestled in the winter, and it was clear he possessed plenty of power even if he wasn't giant by college defensive line standards.

Tuani's football film didnt lie, either, making the son of a 16-year Army veteran especially appealing to Navy.

"I didn't know where he would rate in college, but it took me about three plays on his high school tape to know that we wanted him," defensive line coach Dale Pehrson said.

So did a strong freshman year, during which Tuani nudged his way into the starting lineup. Effective sophomore and junior years soon followed on defenses filled with veterans.

That wasn't the case this year, when Tuani was one of only two regular starters returning. He was an obvious pick as the Mids' defensive captain and was a visible presence at spring practice as he recovered from offseason knee surgery.

Tuani continues his march up Navy's career pass-rushing lists, ranking fifth in school history in sacks (11.5) and sixth in tackles for loss (32). Yet it's an intuitive ability to read when teammates need either a tongue-lashing or instruction on the side that's made him especially valuable to the young Mids' defense.

As the only four-year starter on the roster, Tuani played a role in several significant victories - including a combined 17 tackles and two forced fumbles in victories over Air Force in 2008 and 2009.

Toss in an upbeat approach to complement a strong career, and Tuani gets attention anytime he raises his voice.

"When Jabaree speaks, he's someone everyone listens to on the defense," senior safety Kwesi Mitchell said. "No matter who's talking, everyone's going to be quiet."

Acting as an extension of the coaching staff is particularly helpful during stretches like this week. Classes at the academy have progressed to the point of the semester where midterms litter most players' schedules, and the significance of taking the first step toward winning back the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy is understood by everyone.

Tuani knows his teammates have plenty to juggle but also realizes it can be better for the Mids to hear a message from him rather than the staff.

"If I see I need to do something , I'll try to make sure I immediately say something. .... I'd rather have it come from me than have coach Green jump on everybody else."

Especially if it can help Navy continue to improve after a promising September. Contributing to defeats of Air Force and Army as a senior would further enhance Tuani's career. So would 12.5 more tackles for loss, which would secure the program record.

No matter what, though, the undersized Tuani's immense legacy as a model for Navy defensive linemen to aspire to is safe.

"He's the best one I ever coached here," said Pehrson, who is in his 16th year at Navy. "There's no doubt about that.""

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