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October 5, 2011In just a matter of weeks, Jamaal Kearse went from being a relative unknown to being a University of Washington starting linebacker.
It's been a wild ride.
Kearse, redshirt freshman out of Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., has used the past year to grow as a player.
Lakes football coach Dave Miller has watched Kearse evolve.
"I think it's tough on anybody to come out of high school and be a guy that plays all the time and then have to redshirt," Miller said. "But he's handled it really well. He's worked hard in the weight room and learned the system. It was just a matter of time before he got his opportunity. He's still going to continue to work hard and get better."
Kearse made his first collegiate start against Utah and for the second game in a row was involved in key plays for the Huskies.
"I learned a lot," Kearse said before the Utah game. "As far as the feeling, the play's a lot faster, the actual plays we're running, what I have to do, my job I've learned a lot over the past year."
This is an instance where Kearse actually feels almost grateful to have had the opportunity to continue learning and building on his skills during his redshirt season.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Josh Shirley would agree, having said that "adjusting to college level (of play) has been the hardest part."
"Redshirting actually really helped me out a lot," Kearse said. "It gave me time to develop as a linebacker because I never played it before, so it gave me a good time period to develop."
Kearse played defensive back, safety and wide receiver at Lakes. He wound up being all-state as a defensive back his senior year when Lakes went 12-1.
"We always knew Jamaal was going to be a big kid," Miller said. "Jamaal was evolving into a linebacker with his body type. He's still young and going to continue to get bigger."
So it was no surprise to Miller when he switched to linebacker at the UW.
"I definitely felt like he could play linebacker because he was always really physical and he was always a really good hitter," Miller said of the 6-foot-2, 224-pound Kearse. "Even when he was a receiver he was a great blocker. He reminded me of a guy who could play linebacker."
Both Jamaal and his older brother Jermaine Kearse hail from Lakes, as do current Huskies Sione Potoa'e and Willis Wilson. Kearse mentioned that have the Lakes connection at UW has its perks.
"We kind of knew each other so when we first came in, you're not just stranded," Jamaal Kearse said. "You know people here and then you start to get to know your whole team, and then everybody comes together. It's good for when you first start off."
Kearse's arrival at UW began with an instant support system.
Senior leadership has been stressed this year, and Kearse has an outstanding linebacker to look up to.
"As a linebacker, I always look up to Cort (Dennison)," Kearse said. "He's that guy for linebackers. He makes sure everyone knows what they're doing and everyone stays on top of their stuff."
Outside of the linebacker position, Jamaal Kearse has another senior he can lean on - his older brother, Jermaine, a senior wide receiver.
"I'm always looking up to my brother," Jamaal Kearse said. "He goes out there, he works hard, he makes me want to better myself."
Miller, having coached both Kearse players, has seen this first-hand.
"They've always been close," Miller said. "Jermaine always was very business-like in how he played football Jamaal always looked up to Jermaine."
When Jermaine went to Washington, it was "good in a way for Jamaal to do his own thing and get out of the shadow a little bit," Miller said. "It's really been cool to see Jamaal achieve his brother's success."
But this shadow hasn't completely covered Jamaal.
"He proved last week he's a contributor, and he's going to continue to do that," Miller said of the California game when Jamaal saw his first extensive action and had four tackles.
And the pressure of living up to a successful older sibling hasn't gotten to him.
"They play different positions so it's a little different deal," Miller said. "He's going to have a great career at Washington just as Jermaine has."
"If anything, it helps more (having Jermaine on the team)," Jamaal Kearse said. "It's more comfortable. Going back to the sideline and talking with him. Enjoying the game with him."
"I think every kid wants to prove they belong," Miller said. "It's a maturation process. He's gotten on the field and started to show some flashes. It's been fun to watch him."
Against Utah, Jamaal recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff and returned it for a touchdown.
He was starting in place of freshman John Timu, who injured his neck against California and had to leave the field in an ambulance.
The Huskies have experienced a rash of injuries, including defensive end Hau'oli Jamora, who's out for the season.
Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian now is faced to make a decision on who to start between Kearse and Timu.
"It doesn't matter how old or how young you are, you just got to step in," Shirley said.
And having the younger guys play doesn't seem to unnerve the coaches.
"The more they play, the better they're going to be," defensive line and special teams coach Johnny Nansen said. "That's the bottom line."
Jamaal Kearse was called to step in for the Cal game and showed his presence during the goal-line stand that sealed the win.
"I knew eventually his time would come," Miller said.
"All I was thinking is we need to keep them out of the end zone," Kearse said. "We can't let them get in. We stop them and the game is over, and we won the game. All I was thinking about was to stay focused and do my job and have everyone else do their job."
This focus doesn't surprise Miller one bit.
"He was always very competitive very smart, very instinctive," Miller said.
Kearse carried that positive momentum into the Utah game and came up big with the special teams touchdown and four tackles on defense.
During practice the week before the Utah game, Kearse said he wanted to "Come out, do my assignment, make sure I do what I got to do. I trust my team and know they're going to do what they have to do. So we are all going to work together as a team and do what we have to do."
And that's just what the Huskies did.
During that opening kickoff, sophomore linebacker Garret Gilliland forced the fumble that resulted in Kearse's 18-yard touchdown return.
Husky fans couldn't have asked for a better start to this battle against a physical team like the Utes.
Miller believes Kearse will only continue to get stronger, bigger and faster as the season progresses.
"He was a big part of our success at Lakes," Miller said. "We won a lot of games with him. Jamaal and Jermaine are two of the best kids we have had. They're great leaders, hard workers. It's been a blast for me to watch them play at Washington. They're making us all proud Jamaal has always been a winner."