Jovan Belcher didn't draw much attention from football recruiters in high school. Although he played linebacker, offensive tackle, nose guard, fullback, and special teams for West Babylon (N.Y.) High School, the University of Maine senior kept his 6-foot-2-inch frame lean for wrestling, and many programs considered him too small.
Belcher doesn't mind being underrated. "I do like being the underdog because you can come up and surprise people," he said.
Belcher's success at Maine, first at linebacker, then defensive end, is no longer surprising. He was named the Colonial Athletic Association preseason Defensive Player of the Year and has come through on that promise. In a 27-10 upset of Delaware Oct. 11, Belcher had two sacks and forced two fumbles, along with a routine seven tackles, and earned CAA Defensive Player of the Week honors along with The Sports Network's FCS National Defensive Player of the week.
His first forced fumble, in a frenetic fourth quarter, set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Maine's Mike Brusko that gave the Black Bears a 17-10 lead.
"It was all effort and desire and wanting to get to the football first," said defensive coordinator Robb Smith. "He has such a physical nature, the closer we can get him to the line of scrimmage, the better for us. He really is a headfirst guy; he's not going to wait to see what happens, he's going to make things happen."
Belcher also is on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, awarded to the top defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision and is in the top five in the CAA in four categories: He is first in tackles by a defensive lineman (68); tied for third in sacks (4), fourth in tackles for a loss (8.0), and second in tackles (9.7 per game).
"Some people said that he played like an All-American in that [Delaware] game," said coach Jack Cosgrove, whose Black Bears (4-3, 2-2 CAA) host Northeastern (2-5, 1-2) tomorrow. "We feel he does that every week. Sometimes things happen in the course of a game that allow a player to really stand out; he had a huge tackle that resulted in a fumble on one of those plays where he was in pursuit across the field and made the big hit so that the crowd went `oooh,' and then three plays later, we ran it in for the go-ahead touchdown. Then later they got it back, and he got a sack and a strip and Jordan Stevens ran it in 35 yards for the touchdown.
"Jovan had a huge effect on the game in the fourth quarter."
Some other schools took a look, but Maine was the only one to offer Belcher a football scholarship.
"We brought him in as a linebacker," said Smith, "but our long-range plan was always to move him to defensive end. When he got here, he was 195 pounds: His jeans were falling off him. His clothes were all too big. But you knew he had great growth potential. The first scrimmage his freshman year, he went in third on the depth chart. After the scrimmage, he was first.
"Things fell right for the Maine Black Bears."
For Belcher, the choice was not between football programs, but between football and wrestling. He was a three-time All-American on the mat.
"I love that sport," he said. "But I wanted to play a team sport."
Belcher left the wrestling mats behind when he left high school, but he kept his wrestling game face.
"I believe I got my whole attitude and mind-set from wrestling," he said. "It's about 70 percent mental toughness. That carried over to football."
Wrestlers often compete at the brink of exhaustion. "You want to give up but you can't," said Belcher. "You keep pushing yourself and pushing yourself."
When Belcher visited Maine, he was taken by "a great working atmosphere up here with players."
"When he got to campus," said Cosgrove, "he was a phenomenally impressive young man, in how he conducted himself in and around the young men in our program. We were fortunate nobody else recruited him.
"There's no doubt that wrestling was what got him his notoriety in high school, but we also saw a tremendous upside as far as his football ability, and then you attach some of the characteristics of a good wrestler. I don't know another player who runs to and through the whistle as well, who goes sideline to sideline as well. He's always playing with that wrestler's mode."
Belcher, whose first start as a freshman was against Nebraska ("That's how much of an impression he made on us," said Cosgrove), spent two years at linebacker, then moved to defensive end last season.
"There's a lot more contact at defensive end," said Belcher. "At linebacker, you can see the whole field and you know what's going on. At defensive end, it's basically hit first, then you can see what's going on.
"I don't like to give up on any play. You never know when someone might cut back or fumble. Pursuit is our biggest thing - you've just got to keep on running."
"We always try to play to our players' strengths," Cosgrove said. "By putting Jovan's hand on the ground, that's really allowed him to play with his strengths and to excel."
Belcher will graduate in December after just 3 1/2 years at Maine. He's a child development and family relations major, and hopes to tackle working with troubled adolescents after graduation.
"He has an infectious smile and a very good way around children," said Cosgrove. "He's a great role model. He's the captain of our team, as well as an astounding football player. He models all the right things."
Barbara Matson can be reached at email@example.com.