Smack dab in middle of things

'I just like contact': Navy's Middleton makes impression as big-hitting sophomore

October 23, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Al Middleton was putting together a family video recently when he came across a tape of his son Wyatt playing football in the eighth grade.

"He laid a kid out where they had to stop the game for 10 minutes," the elder Middleton recalled.

A few years later, when the younger Middleton was playing at Marist High in Norcross, Ga., he ended the season of current Georgia star Asher Allen with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit - as a running back.

That reputation for hard hitting has continued at Navy, where Middleton, a sophomore, leads the Midshipmen this season in tackles (49) and delivering painful blows to the opposition.

Despite dropping nearly 20 pounds since high school, the result of military training as well as trying to get faster after switching from linebacker to safety, the 6 foot, 197-pound Middleton smiles when asked about his big hits.

"I've always been a hard hitter," Middleton said this week. "Size is nothing. I've seen corners who are 170 pounds blow big guys up. If they can do it, I can do it, and I'm bigger than them. I just like contact."

Said first-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo: "He gets people on the ground. He's probably our best tackler."

Much of Middleton's success this season began last fall, when he took over after Jeff Deliz injured his foot in the second game and was lost for the season. Middleton wound up starting the final 11 games and set a Navy freshman record with 88 tackles that was second overall on the team.

Perhaps the biggest difference this season for Middleton, 20, is his ability to play the ball in the air. Middleton acknowledges that he was more comfortable last season playing against the run. Now he seems to understand his position more.

"We worked a lot in the spring and the summer, working on pass coverage. Last year I played a lot going downhill," supporting the run, Middleton said. "I've been used to playing downhill [against the run] and having a good nose for the ball. Now my first job is pass" coverage."

Said defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who also coaches the secondary: "We saw as a freshman a guy who was talented and who had a nose for the football. Now what I've seen after playing as a true plebe is that he's really improved playing the ball in the air."

Middleton will certainly get some opportunities when Navy (4-3) plays Southern Methodist (1-7) on Saturday in Annapolis. Under first-year coach June Jones, the Mustangs are 11th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing yardage but also have had the most passes intercepted (18).

"Since they are a passing team, the game is going to be on us DBs [defensive backs] to win this for our team," said Middleton, whose lone interception this season came in Navy's upset of then-No. 16 Wake Forest last month.

Though Deliz has returned - he is one tackle behind Middleton - Middleton has grown into one of the defensive leaders.

"For a young guy, he provides great leadership," Niumatalolo said. "He's a quiet leader, but he's always at the right spot at the right time. ... People just follow him because of his example."

It's only natural that Middleton has evolved into a leader because he had so many strong role models growing up.

His father, Al, was one of 14 siblings who was raised in New York City in a family in which all the children graduated from college and most went on to advanced degrees.

His older sister, Kellie, graduated with two degrees from Notre Dame while playing softball and got her master's in public health from Georgia. She is in medical school at Pittsburgh while playing professional softball in Akron.

His older brother, William, is finishing his career as a cornerback with Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse Furman. With 4.28-second speed in the 40-yard dash and the ability to dunk a basketball, he is expected to be a midround NFL draft pick next spring.

"By having the oldest do so well, it's not pressure; they look at it like 'that's the way I'm supposed to do it,' " said Al Middleton, a former Division II college basketball player who became an engineer, and along with his wife, Karen, has raised their four children outside Atlanta.

Coming out of high school, Wyatt Middleton had a chance to follow his brother to Furman or even go to larger FBS schools such as Vanderbilt to play. Deciding to come to Navy - with a one-year detour at prep school in Newport, R.I. - was not easy.

"It's a huge decision. It's very hard," said Middleton, who was also recruited by Air Force. "It's a very hard decision as an 18-year-old. That's why I'm thankful to have my parents and my older siblings who have gone through the recruiting stage kind of helped me out a lot."

Middleton understands he will have to put his longtime dream of playing in the NFL on hold if he finishes his military commitment.

"If you're good enough to go pro, God is going to make sure you get there," he said. "I prayed about the decision [to go to Navy]. So far it's turned out well."

SOUTHERN METHODIST @NAVY

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBS College Sports Network

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Line: Navy

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