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March 31, 2013This year's Rutgers defense features only a handful of seniors with prior starting experience. Fifth-year senior linebacker Jamal Merrell leads that group with 25 career starts. But he wasn't always the front runner for a starting job during his tenure at Rutgers.
Merrell came to Rutgers out of Bear, Del., as a long, wiry 185-pounder in the recruiting class of 2009.
He would go on to spend his first year in Piscataway as a wide receiver.
"It was fun [playing wide receiver] and I got after it, but then I hurt my knee. It was a humbling process," Merrell said. "That's why I try to tell everybody, if you get hurt or you get moved to a different position, there's always a future. It just depends on how hard you work. I worked my butt off and I'm happy where I am right now."
A year into his stay at Rutgers, Merrell was still down on the depth chart at wide receiver. That prompted a move to the opposite side of the football.
"I went to coach Schiano and told him I love to hit," Merrell said. "That's when he tried me at defensive end. It was a whole different transition going to offense to defense. The whole playbook and the whole concept of the game changed just like that."
Nevertheless, the move to defensive end did not last long.
"It only last a couple of weeks," Merrell said. "They saw I was too fast for that so they moved me to outside linebacker."
While at Hodgson Vo-Tech High School, Merrell lined up at wide receiver and safety but always favored playing on one side of the football.
"Defense has always been my thing," Merrell said.
Merrell's first two seasons at Rutgers were long ones. He went through each of those campaigns without playing a single down.
"I just stayed humble and kept telling myself I can do it," Merrell said. "I was kind of discouraged at some points but I have my brother [Jamil] here. He keeps my chin up and I keep his up. That kind of got me through the process, having him by my side."
Merrell also knew he had his share of doubters outside the program.
"The way my dad raised us, we believe it doesn't matter what people say. It's what you do that matters. I heard people say I was too tall or I was too skinny. But they don't truly know who you are. If you know who you are then you can go far in life. I knew who I was and I knew where I could go."
The move to linebacker looked like a fortuitous one right away as Merrell entered spring practice of 2011 as a starter and has not relinquished that job ever since.
"I kind of fit right into it because I always liked the pass coverage and coming up for the run," Merrell said. "So I kind of molded into it but at the same time I kind of just let my ability play from there. The whole transition just kind of flowed through. I just kept a level head and worked hard."
The hard work has paid off and with another productive season, a future in the NFL now looks like an inevitability for Merrell.
"That crosses my mind but I'm still here with all my college friends. I'm focusing on this right now but I have faith that I can play in the NFL. And if you keep that faith, you're going to do your job right here and right now. That's what I'm focusing on, doing my job right now."