The underdog

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J.K. Schaffer was undersized and under-recruited coming out of LaSalle in 2007, but developed into one of the premier defenders in the Big East.


CINCINNATI - At first glance of recruiting J.K. Schaffer at LaSalle High School, Bearcats assistant Kerry Coombs didn't see a future Division I linebacker.


Those traits would reveal themselves upon deeper investigation.


At first, he saw a puppet.


"He is a much better athlete than you might think when you meet him in person with his red hair and big smile," Coombs said. "I used to tease him, he looked a bit like Howdy Doody."


Fortunately for UC, Coombs quickly peeled past the layers of freckles, undersized frame and questioned talent to uncover the perfect football player to fit this program.


Some didn't bother to dig.


Check that, almost everyone didn't.


jk schaffer.jpegThe All-Ohio linebacker sold himself to Mid-American Conference schools across the state, hoping to land a scholarship offer. Ohio University offered. No others did. Miami (Ohio), a MAC school living in Schaffer's own backyard, decided to pass.


But Coombs saw an underdog. While nearly every school on the recruiting trail viewed that as an excuse for why Schaffer would fail, everyone close to him knew it was the reason he'd succeed.


"I like being the underdog," Schaffer said. "It doesn't allow me to get complacent which I can't do, because I am not a guy with all the talent in the world, just blessed with talent. I have no time to be complacent or else I am going to fall a step behind."


Seventeen starts into his Bearcats career, Schaffer's a step above. He finished second on the team in tackles while starting 12 games as outside linebacker in 2009. He led the team with 10 tackles in the Sugar Bowl.


This season he seamlessly handled a move to middle linebacker and through five games ranks second in the Big East and 23rd nationally with 9.8 tackles per game.


The kid nobody wanted turned himself into the one everybody missed.


"My whole life, I've fed off of trying to prove people wrong," Schaffer said. "I try to live that everyday. There is nothing more that I love than to prove someone wrong who is doubting something I can do, something my team can do, something my teammates can do. I love proving people wrong and going out there and trying to earn things. I don't like anything being given to me."


The only thing being given to Schaffer these days is responsibility. On a unit without a senior starter, the junior gladly accepted the role of quarterback of the defense by moving to the middle during preseason.


When evaluating his impact, it's easy to point to the numbers. Schaffer owns 49 tackles, 16 more than the second-leading tackler on the team. He also grabbed one of the Bearcats' two interceptions - an amazing acrobatic pick against Oklahoma.


Schaffer wouldn't be considered the flashiest guy on the field. The Oklahoma play may be the closest to flash Schaffer offered in his time at UC.


Sometimes, his impact comes quietly. But, unlike most linebackers in college football, he plays every snap. And on seemingly every snap, he makes plays.


He picked up 16 tackles against N.C. State and followed with 13 the next game against Oklahoma. 


On a defense with so many players attempting to figure out what their role should be early on, it's hard to imagine where the Bearcats would be without Schaffer this year.


"I don't even want to think about that," Butch Jones said. "The biggest thing you can see is he's consistent. That's the biggest thing you can say that describes J.K."


The consistent approach serves as the foundation for his numbers, but Schaffer provided much more than tackles and defensed passes. When he vacated his outside linebacker position to move to the middle, unproven sophomore Maalik Bomar filled his spot.


Bomar needed somebody to guide him through his first experience as a Division I starter. Schaffer gladly accepted the role of big brother and showed him the way. They worked extra hours in the film room and the weight room as Bomar packed on 20 pounds during the offseason.


A laugh fills the space between words when Bomar talks about how Schaffer calls him "young pup," considering Schaffer's only 51 days older.


"I told him, 'C'mon, that died off in the summer,'" Bomar said. "I paid my dues."


"I like to give him a hard time just because he's doing so well," Schaffer said. "I got to keep him down to earth and keep his head in it."


Both stay in it through competition. Tackles, forced fumbles, defensed passes and other stats are all worth two points while a sack is worth three in their yearlong battle.


By virtue of a significant lead in tackles, the teacher holds a strong lead on the student. But Bomar is making a charge with 24 of his 33 total tackles coming in the last three games.


"Even if I am coming from the backside, when I am running everything down, I'm thinking, 'I hope J.K. doesn't get there before I do," Bomar said. "But, if I am getting a play to my side, I will sacrifice myself because I know J.K. will be there."


The relationship forms the hammer for the No. 8 rushing defense in the country. Facing the No. 18 rushing offense in the nation at Louisville on Friday (Visit the Game's Rivalry Page), they have their hands full. Staring down a lineup of premier backs like Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis, West Virginia's Noel Devine, Connecticut's Jordan Todman and Syracuse's Delone Carter, the odds infer UC can't hold up its high-ranked position.


Go ahead, count Schaffer out.   


"I always say that every time our team is the underdog, I'm happy because it puts a little chip on our shoulder, gives us a little extra spark," he said. "I like it because it keeps me hungry."


In so many ways, Schaffer embodies the image of the only program he wanted to join out of high school: Lacking the supposed tangibles, overlooked, constantly counted out.


"I can't believe as many teams missed him as they did," Coombs said. "But, a lot of that is a function of, I don't know, bias or prejudice or whatever. We'd take 100 J.K. Schaffer's and we'd have a darn good football team."


The same way Coombs saw more than a freckle-faced, undersized kid nobody wanted from LaSalle, he sees more in Schaffer's future than a year and a half in Clifton.


"He's going to play in the NFL," Coombs said.


That's a bold claim. Schaffer's size by the UC media guide is 6-1, 223 pounds. The average size of an NFL linebacker is 6-2, 247.


Fighting to make an NFL roster, Schaffer would be considered a huge underdog.


Of course, he wouldn't want it any other way.

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