Sitting in his office after the day’s practice, Steve Vukojevich, University City High School’s football coach, reflected for a moment when asked about the aspirations of high school players to play for schools such as Oklahoma and Nebraska.
“With kids, you’d expect that,” he said. “Like all of us, they’re dreamers.”
University City’s top linebacker, Ken Holland, dreams of playing for Oklahoma. So does Cecil Austin of Kearny. The goal of La Jolla High’s Mike Huddleston always has been to play for Penn State.
Match these three against most high school players, and they’re a step quicker, slightly stronger and better. All-league selections last year and current leaders of their teams in tackles, Huddleston, Austin and Holland spend Friday nights making sure Saturday is a day of healing for many local running backs. For now, that’s enough. Plenty, in fact.
But after this season, the comparisons will change. Ranked next to the nation’s college prospects, the “Best of the City West” begin to blend in with the crowd. Austin (5-11, 210) and Holland (6-0, 200) have below-average size for college linebackers. At 6-1, 210, Huddleston is close but still short of ideal.
San Diego State linebacker coach Mike Nelson defines ideal as 6-3 or 6-4 and between 230 and 235 pounds. Add 4.7 speed, and he’ll roll out the red-and-black carpet.
Linebackers the size of Austin, Huddleston and Holland have to be fast; Nelson says college coaches accept speed as a substitute for height. Nelson welcomes 6-foot players with good quickness, natural instincts and the aggressiveness to go after people.
“It used to be you’d look at a guy (their size), and you’d just right away say ‘Nope, he can’t play,’ ” Nelson said. “But I think what’s happening in college football is that size and strength are (considered) nice, but you have to be able to run. The smaller you are, the quicker you’ve got to be to be considered.”
So Austin and Huddleston, who run 4.8 40-yard dashes, and Holland, who runs a 4.9, are working to make their speed better than average. To keep the dream alive.
Cecil Austin never considered his size a liability. He plays without fear of bigger players, employing a devil-may-care style similar to that of his favorite player, Lawrence Taylor.
Comparison? Well, Taylor is 6-3, 243 and runs the 40 in 4.5. Austin has a long way to go, but his intentions are similar. He gets a kick out of bouncing off blockers like a pinball and crunching running backs as hard as he can. And that reflects his personality.
“I’m seldom quiet,” he said. “I’m kind of like a loud, obnoxious guy.”
He’s the same on the field.
“I don’t care if I get hit or not, I’m going to make the tackle,” he said. “It’s like a no-care attitude. I’m going to hit you before you hit me.”
Despite his recklessness, Austin has never been seriously injured in a football game. In fact, his most severe injury came while washing dishes at home before last year’s opener. He cut a tendon in his right pinky on a broken glass and missed four games. When he returned, he concentrated on playing center and earned all-league honors but couldn’t wait to return defense. He wanted to be a hitter again.
Born in Nebraska, Austin would love to return to his home state as a Cornhusker next year. Tom Barnett, Kearny’s defensive coordinator, doesn’t mind seeing his players set their sights high, but he tries to provide them with a dose of reality.
“I’m very honest with the players,” he said. “If they’re talking about Oklahoma or Nebraska I say, ‘Well, first of all think about the scholastic part of it. You’re going to school for an education. If you want to play football, go somewhere where you can play and have a good time, not sit on the bench.’ ”
One day before the season started, Mike Huddleston received an unexpected letter. It was from Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, informing Huddleston he’d be keeping an eye on him.
The root of Paterno’s interest didn’t stem entirely from Huddleston’s ability. A friend of the Huddleston family, who is also a friend of Paterno’s, wrote a letter recommending him. Nonetheless, it was a thrill to get recognition from a coach for whom he’d always dreamed of playing.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “I don’t know if I could ever make it (at Penn State), but that’s a dream I have.”
Huddleston might not be Nittany Lions’ caliber, but La Jolla Coach Gene Edwards thinks he’ll play at some Division I school next season.
“He is very tough physically,” he said. “He studies very hard, so he understands what we’re trying to do defensively.”
Though not particularly fast, Huddleston has good mobility. Edwards recalls Huddleston running down a Montgomery wide receiver on a long pass and making a touchdown preventing tackle earlier this season.
If Penn State is out, Huddleston would like to stay in California. UC Berkeley has already shown interest, and that fits in with an alternate goal, to play Pac-10 football.
Speed may still be a question, but his hitting ability isn’t. A San Marcos running back told him last year he’d never been hit by anyone as hard as Huddleston hit him. And that was last year. Huddleston bench presses 340 pounds, considered good for a college player.
Huddleston likes fishing, which many running backs probably wish he’d do more of on Friday nights.
Ken Holland, chosen the most valuable player on the Kearny football team last season, comes from a family that loves the game. His father, Kenneth, is a Raider fan. His mother, Sandy, is a Cowboy fan.
But Kenneth never really thought Ken was big enough to play beyond the high school level. Until the end of last season.
“Now, after he saw the MVP (award) and now he sees the letters (about one a week from schools including Notre Dame, Nebraska and UCLA), he knows I have a realistic chance,” he said.
Realistic only if he improves his speed and keeps eating. His parents feed him well so he can get bigger, but they don’t let him get too big-headed. Kenneth is quick to remind him of the difference between high school and college football after every game.
“He’ll watch games, and when I come home he’ll get right on me about what I was doing wrong, not about what I was doing right,” he said. “He puts it in logical sense. When I first started playing, I was waiting for (players) to come to me. I wasn’t attacking them. And real quick my dad got on me and told me ‘You have to step up into the holes and make the tackle.’ ” During the past year, Holland’s attitude about his abilities have changed. Like his dad, he never thought he was good enough to play college football.
“Now (it’s) becoming a lot more realistic dream,” he said. “I think I have the ability to play with just about anyone.”