(#37 JK Schaffer)
While he didn't exactly play with a bag over his head, Jerome Kyle Schaffer was pretty much an "unknown linebacker" to most college experts (and those not following UC's program closely) when he pulled his #37 jersey on for the first time in 2008.
The former first team Division I All-Ohio defender out of LaSalle High School that laid the "smackdown" on the GCL in Cincinnati, is now a known commodity in the Big East after finishing eighth in the conference in tackles in just his sophomore season. Now, as a junior, he's coming off his third trip to Camp Higher Ground and looking forward to chewing on the Bulldogs of Fresno State on September 4th.
"We had a good camp," said Schaffer. "It went pretty fast. I guess we were having some fun. Usually, it drags on."
Fun is good. Winning is fun. JK Schaffer has done lots of winning as UC's been 22-4 since he's suited up, playing in the Orange and Sugar Bowls in consecutive years.
Thing is, those years were hardly based on defense. Former coach Brian Kelly's offense received all of the accolades while the defense was forced to play a lot of minutes. With Kelly's offense striking quick, Schaffer and the defense barely had time to get their helmets off and get a Gatorade squirt.
The result was a lot of points being scored on the defense and not much respect handed out nationally. Schaffer and every member of the defense you talk to is out to change that perspective.
"Yeah, we've got a little chip on our shoulders still," said Schaffer. "We're going to set out to prove people wrong this year. We're always the underdogs, but we like it like that. We like to prove people wrong."
Coach Butch Jones is also looking to prove people wrong. UC's offensive talent has been well documented, but Jones is hoping to shore up the defense by returning to a 4-3 look that should be on the attack more. In the heart of that attack is JK Schaffer, assuming the leadership role left when Andre Revels graduated.
Schaffer is now leading by example and influencing "stars in waiting" like Maalik Bomar, another local product (sophomore--Winton Woods).
"JK's been a great mentor to him," said Coach Butch Jones of the relationship. "He's consistent day in and day out. He's explosive. I'm excited because he's really worked at that spot."
Unfortunately, beyond Schaffer and Bomar, the Bearcats have become a little thin at the linebacking spot thanks to a Camp Higher Ground injury to freshman Solomon Tentman out of Roger Bacon. Much like the "next man in" mantra preached by Brian Kelly, Butch Jones will have to dig into his bench strength this fall.
"Colin Lozier will be another person that needs to step up," said Coach Jones. "It's a process right now. We're not in a stage of our program right now where we can afford to redshirt a lot of our freshman. We're going to have to play some freshman and that's definitely a position where some individuals need to step up."
There's no question that JK Schaffer will step up as he has in his previous years. As for the others, Schaffer believes they'll follow suit.
"We do have a lot of guys," said Schaffer. "You'll be seeing a lot of Maalik Bomar. He's a young guy--reminds me a lot of myself last year. Guys like Colin Lozier and someone that's been in the program a long time now, Obadiah Cheatham, have been playing pretty well this camp."
This Bearcat defense is used to plugging holes, on the field and on the depth chart. Last year's defense wasn't really anything that Buddy Ryan and his sons would salivate over, but there was experience gained and typically numerous guys were shuffled in and out. Rotating and changing parts is nothing new on this Bearcat machine.
"That's just the nature of the sport," said Schaffer. "We have to adjust to whatever happens and make everything work."
Typical "grab your lunchbucket" comment from a Cincinnati-bred GCL tough guy. No excuses, just get it done.
That mentality has served JK well in his tenure at UC and has earned him a trip to Big East Media Day and a picture on some local billboards. The Schaffer family has enjoyed the notoriety of seeing JK on local thruways, but #37 is still playing the "modest card".
"In my mind, I still haven't done anything yet," said Schaffer. "I've got a lot to prove. All that stuff is good and it's nice for my family and all that, but in my mind, I haven't earned that stuff yet. I've got a lot of work to do this season."
Schaffer's work begins later this week when the Bearcats travel west to face Fresno State, a team they only beat by eight last season at Nippert. Gone is running back Ryan Mathews who shredded the Bearcats on the ground, but Coach Pat Hill is still around and his Bulldogs are as tough as anyone on their home field.
"They're a very good team--it's a great challenge for us," said Schaffer. "I'm looking forward to the opportunity to go out west. I've never been to California so I'm looking forward to it."
California can be nice for sightseeing, but rest assured, JK Schaffer will be all business when he takes the field in Fresno. First impressions are always important and Schaffer undoubtedly would like to leave an "impression" on a "Bulldog to be determined".