Grind City Football: Navy’s Mid-South Midshipmen eager for homecoming showdown against Memphis
By Pete Wickham
Grind City Media Correspondent
MEMPHIS – D.J. Palmore remembers the totally eerie, but wonderfully satisfying feeling, about coming home to Memphis and helping the Naval Academy sink the hometown Tigers’ parade.
Memphis came into the game 8-0, ranked 15th in the country – and got spanked 45-20 two years ago by the Midshipmen and All-America QB Keenan Reynolds. Last season, it was Will Worth running the Navy triple-option offense on the way to a 42-28 win in Annapolis.
Palmore, a former Christian Brothers High School star, is accustomed to success against Memphis.
Navy linebacker Jerry Thompson (No. 11) returns to his hometown of Memphis, where his family owns the historic Four Way Restaurant. - Photo Credit: Navy Athletics
“It was amazing that all my family could be there, and my high school friends – secretly cheering me on,” said Palmore, who leads No. 25-ranked Navy (5-0) into town for Saturday’s American Athletic Conference division showdown against Memphis (4-1) at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Navy’s players, as one might expect, have shown the discipline not to crow too much about their recent dominance in the series.
“We haven’t talked smack – but they know we’ve won the last couple of years,” said Palmore, a 6-3, 236-pound linebacker who is one of six Memphis-area products on the Midshipmen roster.
Three of them anchor the Navy defense – Palmore, junior free safety and Cordova native Sean Williams and senior linebacker Jerry Thompson, a White Station alum. Freshman defensive backs Kerrick Jones (Whitehaven) and Cameron Kinley (Lausanne) will see time on special teams while sophomore offensive tackle Jude Hydrick (Briarcrest) rounds out the Mid-South’s Midshipmen at Navy.
While Navy recruits nationally, the program is top-heavy in talent from Texas and Tennessee, which accounts for a total of 46 players on this season’s roster. And when Navy was assigned to the AAC West Division, it allowed coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff to promise recruits in this talent-rich region that they would have the opportunity to come home and play at least twice in their college careers.
But making the commitment to Navy extends far beyond a focus on football.
And the Memphis products who return with the Midshipmen embrace every obligation that comes with playing for one of the most unique programs in all of college football.
“You sit in a locker room as a plebe in the service academies and you realize that these are the guys you’ll be with for the next four years,” said Palmore, now a senior co-captain at Navy. “No transferring or redshirting. This is the group, and you do everything together. It’s something you never want to trade. School is hard, you don’t go home a lot, so this is your family away from home.”
Navy co-captain and Christian Brothers High School alum D.J Palmore.
While seniors at most schools are hoping to be a first-round NFL draft choice, Palmore has already secured his pick for the next few years of his life after graduation. He wants to be a Marine. That choice comes at a time when global tensions in the Middle East and North Korea loom large, and threatening.
But Palmore is steadfast in his commitment to the service after football.
“It’s a decision I’ve made,” he said. “They’ll figure out assignments in a few weeks. Most people get first choice, though there’s a chance you might have to go where the service needs you.”
Thompson, the former White Station standout, has given his preference for Naval service duty, and is trying not to pay attention to the headlines for now.
“It’s just another serious job that has to be done,” Thompson said. “It’s definitely taught me life lessons I wouldn’t have received anywhere else. There are tough times every day, but you get through it and find a way to make things happen.”
Williams insists he’s benefitted from the discipline and structure that came with his transition from Cordova to Annapolis. The group of Memphis-area prospects have learned to lean on one another while away, yet also remain connected to all that makes home so special.
Thompson’s family owns the historic Four Way Restaurant, the oldest soul food establishment in Memphis and a place that has fed the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Historic, yes. Delicious, yes. Menu friendly to a football player’s training regimen? Well, not necessarily.
“Oh I miss it more times than not,” Thompson said. “Catfish, yams and macaroni … .”
For now, Navy hopes to feast on an opportunity to climb in the national polls.
The program’s primary goals are to repeat as AAC West champs, avenge a loss in last season’s conference title game, beat both Air Force (which Navy did last week) and Army, and ultimately take care of business in a bowl game.
Navy linebacker and White Station alum Jerry Thompson.
Still, the rankings add a bit of lore to Navy’s story. The Midshipmen have now been ranked in three consecutive seasons, which is the first time that has happened since a stretch from 1958 to 1960 when Heisman Trophy winner Joe Belino was running the offense.
“It’s an accomplishment,” Niumatalolo said. “But we have to just keep going.”
Palmore has played a key role in Navy’s upswing ever since he hit the starting lineup as a sophomore. A week ago, he had three tackles for a loss, a sack and recovered two fumbles that led to Navy touchdowns in the highest-scoring game in Navy-Air Force history.
Of his 122 career tackles, 23 have been for loss and 10.5 for sacks, including a team-high six last season. All this in spite of the fact Palmore deals with significant weight disadvantage every play, something he’s overcome since his days at Christian Brothers.
“In high school, I won a state heavyweight wrestling title at 228 pounds, so I’m used to the mismatch,” he said. “I’ve definitely gotten faster. I don’t cover a lot of ground, but they count on me to be solid.”
More like rock-solid, his coach said.
“He’s a complete football player, good against the run, our best pass rusher and great effort every play,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s definitely met all expectations when we got him and has had a fabulous career.”
Williams, who has already lettered twice, can play any of the secondary positions, but has found a home at free safety. He leads the team in tackles with 38, has broken up four passes and forced a fumble. Thompson was moved from the secondary to a hybrid rover position and despite being just 196 pounds, is finding a home. Of his 19 stops, 4.5 have been for a loss, with two sacks and a forced fumble.
Navy safety Sean Williams of Cordova
“A lot of people may overlook us,” Thompson said of Navy’s defense. “But every week you go in knowing you’re quicker than most of the people trying to block you, and you use that to your advantage.”
Saturday features a matchup of two high-powered offenses. The Memphis passing game hit a crescendo last week as quarterback Riley Ferguson tied a school record with seven touchdown passes.
“You know the QB is NFL caliber,” Thompson said of Ferguson. “And while they don’t have that 6-4, 225-pound receiver who runs a 4.4, 40-yard dash, they have a bunch of quick guys with sure hands.”
Palmore knows all about top Memphis receiver Anthony Miller. The two were teammates at Christian Brothers. So what’s Palmore’s fantasy – to drill Miller when he’s looking the other way on a route over the middle at some point in Saturday’s showdown?
“He’ll probably see me before he gets into his route,” Palmore said of Miller. “But if it happens, it happens. And I’ll say something to him about it afterwards.”
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