Jeano Khajarian knows his future playing football may not extend much further past his sophomore season with Glendale Community College, which is set to begin today.
The Vaqueros inside linebacker, who previously played for Glendale High, has planned accordingly.
"[Academics] is a big part [of being here]," Khajarian says. "To get to the next level [of college football], it kind of takes some height and I don't have too much of that, so I'm trying to get my education going well.
"I know eventually I'm not going to be in the NFL, but I'm trying to keep it going with school."
The undersized but abundantly enthusiastic Khajarian's studious nature and thirst for knowledge have propelled him to a solid 3.1 grade-point average, but those same traits have also helped him maintain a central defensive role on the football field from his Pop Warner days to the Nitros and now the Vaqueros.
"You look at him physically and you think, 'God, I really wish I could find a way to replace this guy,'" Glendale college Coach John Rome says. "He's five-foot-nothing, 225 pounds and he's not fast. But he's so quick to diagnose plays because he's so smart, not only as a person, but he's also got an extremely high football IQ, so we just couldn't replace him.
"We tried to find bigger guys who looked better but nobody could replace him. …He plays much bigger and much faster than his body would normally suggest."
Blunt as they are, Rome's assessments of Khajarian's physical gifts aren't much different from what Khajarian would tell you himself.
But when asked to detail his value to the team, the Vaqueros coaching staff reserves some of its highest praise for Khajarian.
Rome cites his football IQ as being off the charts. Defensive coordinator Doug Bledsoe calls Khajarian a true leader and probably the smartest player on the field.
And on a team stocked with other experienced sophomores, Khajarian is well-respected in the locker room.
"He brings a bunch of leadership to the table," says Vaqueros sophomore offensive lineman Ronnie Marquez, who also played with Khajarian at Glendale. "He only says a few words here and there, but once he starts to talk people listen up."
Because of his work ethic, dedication and knack for reading plays that comes from hours of studying game film, Khajarian, who was an All-Pacific League and All-Area first-team pick at Glendale in 2008 before recording 27 total tackles in eight games with the Vaqueros as a freshman, has managed to keep a firm grip on a position for which exceptional size and/or speed are often prerequisites for success.
Rome says Khajarian has been showing up for 6:30 a.m. workouts at the college since he was still a senior in high school and after dealing with some injury issues last year, he's redoubled his efforts to steel himself for a big sophomore campaign.
"He's here every day and he tells me he can't wait for the season," Rome says. "I've gotta chase him out of my office sometimes. He just wants to watch film, watch video, he wants to get better and he wants to talk and ask questions about football.
"From an academic standpoint, I couldn't ask for anything better. I never have to worry about him."
Khajarian prides himself on his willingness to spend hours on end breaking down film and sharpening his instincts by working with the coaching staff.
"That's one of the most gratifying things they could say about you," Khajarian says. "There's being fast, there's being strong, but having that football IQ, not everyone has that and I take pride in having that.
"[Studying] is a big part of the game. You can't just get on the field, just see what's going on and say, 'OK, let's do this,' you have to watch tape and just do a bunch of other things with the coaches and your teammates. I enjoy [studying game film]. It's like cheating on a test, the [opposing] coaches are giving you the answers and telling you what to expect."
The result of all that work manifests in Khajarian's sharp instincts that make him invaluable to Rome and Bledsoe when he's on the field.
"Jeano does a great job in the classroom," Bledsoe says. "He takes whatever he learns there and brings it onto the field.
"It's kind of cliché, but he's a coach's extension on the field. He knows how to put players in place and he knows his position very well. A lot of times he knows the play before it even starts and that makes him actually look like a better athlete than what he is."
Khajarian didn't lead last year's team in any tangible defensive categories, but was still an integral part of a defensive unit that became the team's identity, atoning for an ineffective offense and finishing as the 18th-ranked defense in Southern California.
"I was very proud to be a part of that," Khajarian says. "The players we had, they were great players. I feel like every time we got in the game we brought it. We knew what we had to do and we saw the offense wasn't doing so well, so we had to pick it up."
Now, Khajarian and his defensive mates hope to put together a repeat performance to help the team bounce back from a 4-5 season that saw the team win just one of its final six games.
"I think it's going to be lot better," Khajarian says of the defense. "We have most of our D-line returning and most of our linebackers are returning and we've got some great players on the secondary coming in. I'm so excited [to show we can do it again]. Especially from last year, how we dropped off that bad after starting off 3-0.
"We take pride in our leadership — me, [Jacob] Meza, all the linebackers," Khajarian says. "If someone's messing up, we're going to tell them what they're doing wrong. Linebackers lead the defense and I think we're doing our job."
With the team now facing a more favorable conference schedule and the pieces seemingly in place for the defense to further improve its stock, this could be a season in which the Vaqueros can indeed contend. And, if Khajarian is able to shine amid it all, who knows, it could even lead to a little more football in his future.
"Hopefully he breaks out this season like he did [in his senior year] at Glendale High," Marquez says. "I think he'll make the plays like he always does. Hopefully, he'll do that again this year and somebody sees him and he gets a scholarship."