When sophomore cornerback Donte Small stepped on the field for the Morgan State University football team to face Howard University Oct. 20, he very easily could have been on the opposite sideline. For that matter, he probably could have been on an even bigger stage somewhere else playing for a well-known NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision program.
But he's a Bear, and that makes Morgan State interim head coach Ernest T. Jones happy.
"I have Division I eyes," said Jones, who previously served as an assistant at FBS schools Notre Dame and Connecticut. "When I saw him play, I knew that he had a chance to go play at bigger programs than Morgan State in the [Football Championship Series], but I'm happy to have him. I had to fight my butt off to get him here. One of his high school coaches is at Howard, so he could have easily gone there."
The fight paid off for Jones, even if he had to convince Small he'd excel as a defensive back at the college level after a standout prep career as wide receiver and cornerback in New Jersey, where he led Paramus Catholic to a state title in 2016 and earned honorable mention All-Metro and all-state honors.
"It was obvious when I recruited him that he could come here and be a four-year starter," Jones said. "There were some bumps and bruises we had to deal with his first year, but he had a great offseason improving his body and is big, fast, strong and studies film. Even though he's still young, he has the respect of all the guys, and on the field he has that nasty demeanor you see from players who are used to winning.
"He's coming into his own as a sophomore, and by the time he's a senior, [he] should be one of the best defensive backs in the [Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference]."
Coming into his own may be an understatement. After a freshman season in which he played in nine games and started eight, recording 17 tackles and three pass breakups, Small has equaled or surpassed those numbers during just seven games for the 2-5 Bears. He has 23 tackles and nine pass breakups already.
Small's coming out party was a three-interception, five-tackle performance during a 30-27 loss at Albany Sept. 15 in which he also broke up four passes and returned one of his picks for a touchdown. Small was named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
"He has really good feet and the ability to transition well," Jones said. "He has great hands to go along with loose hips and good feet, which is a big plus for a defensive back. He's able to cover guys with his feet, irritate them with his hands and as a former receiver has really good ball skills. The better defensive backs usually have all of those attributes."
Small credits his time playing receiver for giving him an edge against his opponents.
"As a defensive back who played receiver, I am able to understand where they are likely to break their patterns, their head moves and am able to look at their hips to figure out where they are going," he said. "I also can usually figure out where the ball is going based on their alignment -- if they set up outside the numbers or inside the numbers."
The game against Albany not only was a turning point for Small, but also for the entire defensive unit. Morgan left that game with an 0-3 record after a tough early-season schedule that included Towson and FBS opponent Akron. But the Bears pushed Albany to the limit, refusing to wilt and even taking a fourth-quarter lead despite trailing for much of the game.
Since then, Morgan's defense has allowed 13, 21, 11 and 35 points in going 2-2, and the defense has positioned itself as the backbone of the team. The Bears rank 29th in the FCS in total defense. They're 1-2 in the MEAC with the victory coming against Savannah State Oct. 13. The Bears'
stunning, 16-13 win against North Carolina A&T
did not count as a conference victory due to a quirk in the schedule.
"Every week we are showing improvement," Small said, "but I don't think we are satisfied with what we are doing now as a whole. … We have a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball."
Likewise, Small has shown tremendous improvement from his freshman year, which turned out to be a difficult one for him overall. In addition to adjusting to life away from home as a college freshman and adapting to a new level of football, he mourned the passing of his grandmother and uncle.
"My whole freshman year was just hard," Small said. "I think I had to grow up a lot. It was just a matter of understanding that those things are part of life and that every time I play they are watching over me. I pray before every game and understand that it's important to play every game like it's your last."
Another part of Small's growth as a player came off the field during offseason training and in the film room. He came back for preseason camp as a different player and person.
"He came into camp and was ready to go," Jones said. "He was here all summer, and you could see the first day he had a different body. He understands our scheme so much better now, which comes from him watching way more film than in the past. He's able to use his eyes to key on everything that's going on and let them take him to the right place where he can make plays."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Morgan State Athletic Communications