As soon as Navy outside linebackers coach Justin Davis saw D.J. Palmore, he knew the defense had a top playmaker in its midst.
Even as a freshman, Palmore ran to every ball and showed the type of dedication that turned him into one of the program's elite players.
Palmore's top-notch work rate culminated with him being named captain prior to this season in a vote by his teammates. Palmore has once again done his part on the field and leads the team with 2.5 sacks heading into the final games of his senior season.
"That guy has been phenomenal. He's been such a great leader," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "When you have a leader like that, it's easy for people to follow. Because D.J. works so hard and doesn't ask anything of anyone else that he doesn't do himself. When you have a leader like that, if you're a young guy you better fall in."
Palmore, 6-foot-3, 236 pounds, is a multi-talented player who can drop into coverage or force his way into the backfield. He also prides himself on stopping the run.
This year, Navy has encouraged him to focus more on pressuring quarterbacks, and he has fully embraced that role.
"I don't have to think as much, so it's fun," Palmore said about being used as a pass rusher. "I enjoy winning. So whatever is going to help us win, that's what I am going to do."
Palmore also has blossomed in his role as captain. Teammates look to him for advice and are impressed with his ability to make plays. Palmore was humbled when he received the news that he was named captain along with senior slot back Darryl Bonner.
"It's a huge honor because my teammates voted for me," Palmore said. "Just remembering all of the things we've been through, all the good and the bad, it's just an honor they looked at me like that."
Palmore had a breakout season during his sophomore year in 2015, when he started all 13 contests in the "raider position" -- a hybrid of outside linebacker and strong safety. He finished that season with 36 tackles, including five for a loss, and two sacks. Palmore also recovered two fumbles and broke up a pass. He came up big in the rivalry game against Army when he recorded three tackles, including two for a loss, and a sack.
Palmore was also part of a defensive unit that held then-No. 15 Memphis to a season-low 20 points, as Navy snapped the Tigers' 15-game winning streak, which was the third longest in the country.
Davis has enjoyed watching Palmore evolve as a player and an individual.
"Obviously, he's had a great career, and he's become our defensive captain, which is a huge honor at a school of leaders," Davis said. "He's just progressed as a football player, as a person and as a student of the game."
Palmore was a highly touted athlete at Christian Brothers High School in Tennessee. In addition to football, Palmore was a standout in track and field and wrestling. He earned first-team all-state, all-district and all-city honors as a senior in football and was selected to play in the Liberty Bowl All-Star Game his senior year.
Palmore finished his high school career with 249 tackles, 21 sacks, two interceptions and six fumble recoveries as a three-year starter. His leadership skills began to emerge during that time, and he was named football team captain his junior and senior years of high school.
Palmore was also a successful wrestler, winning the 2014 Division II state heavyweight wrestling crown his senior year, and was a two-time state duals champion. In track and field, he won the Division II regional title in the shot put his senior year and finished as the state runner-up.
Palmore, who was also a stellar student, considered Air Force, Wofford and UT-Martin in addition to Navy. A visit to the Naval Academy sealed his decision.
"Navy was the first school that really loved me," Palmore said. "I remember Coach [Niumatalolo] came to my home and met with my family. I came up here and all the meetings was talking about ‘The Brotherhood.' I was kind of skeptical because I heard that all the time at my high school. Then I went out to dinner with some of the players, and I saw that it was real -- that everyone bought into that mentality. I really wanted to be part of that."
Palmore expected to make an immediate impact for the football team. However, the process was not as seamless as he initially thought. He appeared in five games as a freshman and finished with seven tackles.
Palmore wanted more playing time, but he began to understand that minutes had to be earned and there were upperclassmen above him on the depth chart.
"Football is very developmental," Palmore said. "I didn't get it at first. I thought I should be playing as a freshman and didn't understand why I wasn't the man as a sophomore. I learned that when you don't focus on yourself and just try to help your teammates get better, you figure out the little chinks in your own game."
Palmore kept the momentum of his sophomore year going into last season, when he played in 12 of the 13 games. He suffered an injury that forced him to miss the East Carolina game in November, but he still led the team with six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. He had three tackles and a sack against Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl and six more tackles against Army.
Palmore has embraced all of the work it takes to be a great football player at Navy.
"When you get older, you get more mature, you get bigger, stronger and faster," Davis said. "He's taken those tools and developed them into being an overall better football player. He's learned how to study the game. He has gotten better at watching film and seeing what his opponents' weaknesses are. He's taken advantage of that. He's such a smart football player, and then you take the physical side and mesh those together and you get the career that he's had."
Issue 239: November 2017
Originally published Nov. 15, 2017