Navy linebacker Vela plays bigger than his size
Friday, November 13, 2009
Navy senior Ram Vela does not mind that he is often used to illustrate how the Midshipmen don't have the size of most college football teams. He refers to himself as "the small outside linebacker," and at 5 feet 9 and 193 pounds, he may be the smallest starting linebacker in division I-A.
"It's the truth, and you can't shy away from the truth," said Vela, who will start the 27th game of his career Saturday, when the Midshipmen (7-3) host Delaware (6-3) in their home finale. "At the same time, it's kind of like the story of my life -- people not expecting me to do things, kind of just defeating all odds. You definitely don't see too many Hispanics playing division I football, especially undersized ones."
In Navy's 23-21 victory over then-No. 19 Notre Dame last Saturday, Vela was shorter and lighter than every one of the Fighting Irish's starting offensive players, yet he finished with nine tackles, one pass deflection, one fumble recovery and one interception. His play-making performance conjured up memories of the Midshipmen's previous trip to South Bend, in which he went flying over a running back to help bring down the quarterback on a key fourth down late in Navy's 46-44 triple-overtime victory.
"Ram is the epitome of a Navy football player in many ways," senior inside linebacker Ross Pospisil said. "He's just a guy who maybe was told he couldn't do this or he's not going to do that, and he plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he plays for his teammates."
Navy was the only division I-A school that seriously recruited Vela, who was a prolific quarterback at Taft High in San Antonio. As a senior, he accounted for nearly 3,200 yards in the Raiders' spread offense; he passed for 2,169 yards and 19 touchdowns, and ran for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. But he wasn't sure if he could make the transition to quarterback with the Midshipmen.
"I can't lie: I was a little doubtful in myself because I had no experience running the option," said Vela, who attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., before coming to Annapolis.
Moving to wide receiver, a position he played in high school, or slotback seemed to make the most sense. But Vela eventually ended up on defense, initially as a cornerback. He got his first significant playing time as a sophomore against Duke, mainly appearing in Navy's dime package. He did so well that he moved to outside linebacker, specifically the position that defensive coordinator Buddy Green calls "striker." Vela hadn't played outside linebacker since he was a 150-pound high school sophomore.
"Ram does not fit your prototype size for an outside backer," Green said. "In our [3-4] scheme, an outside backer -- the position that Ram plays -- is a part-time outside backer and part-time DB. . . . With his size, he makes up for it with effort and just getting his nose to the football and trying to make plays with leverage and body position."
Over the past three seasons, Vela has been credited with 130 tackles, which puts him fourth on the team in that span behind Pospisil (245 tackles), junior safety Wyatt Middleton (216) and senior linebacker Tony Haberer (143). He has three sacks, two fumble recoveries and five interceptions -- one of which he returned 68 yards for a touchdown in the final minute against Army last season.
"For lack of a better term, he's a baller," Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "He's got great heart, and he's fearless. He'll go against anyone."
Vela has always had a knack for making plays. Senior fullback Jordan Eddington, who also went to Taft High, still remembers how his Pop Warner team lost to Vela's in a playoff game, 7-0, when Vela threw a touchdown pass. Eddington also remembers a long run that Vela made in a game against East Central High.
Vela's favorite play is remembered likely by only him and Green. It came earlier in the 2007 Notre Dame game, on a simple off-tackle run by 220-pound fullback James Aldridge. Vela was cut-blocked, but he got up quickly and brought down Aldridge following a short gain.
"It was kind of like the first solid individual play I had made since I had been playing," said Vela, who had nine tackles that day. "Ever since then, that play kind of stuck out to me."
And in many ways, it is that play that best characterizes Vela, because it showed his heart. Navy's defensive coaches constantly preach the importance of playing hard on every down, and they keep track of plays in which a Midshipman has not given a full effort. Vela may have been knocked down, but he got back on his feet and made the stop.
"That's the way you survive," Green said. "Not only survive, but have success -- you understand the effort it takes to play this game."