College football has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for Rutgers fourth-year junior Jamal Merrell. He came into Rutgers as a three-star recruit and the No.3 player in the state of Delaware's class of 2009. But it took some time for Merrell to make his mark at Rutgers.
Merrell came in as a wiry 195-pound freshman without a true position. He moved from offense to defense and wound up playing three positions during his first couple of years on the banks.
Merrell was also bitten by the injury bug through those first two years. Once he finally had a clean bill of health, he emerged as a starting linebacker and went on to start 12 games last season.
"I feel as though I am finally tuned in," Merrell said. "That's what I tell all the young guys and everybody that redshirted. I just tell them to keep grinding. When your time comes, you have to take advantage of the opportunity. I'm kind of an inspiration to them because I went from receiver to defensive end to linebacker. I just took my opportunities and kept working hard. If you keep doing that, opportunities will open up."
Merrell has been able to stay clear of injury and that has indeed opened up quite an opportunity.
"I pray every day just stay healthy and I'm staying healthy," Merrell said. "I hit the cold tubs and get treatment and just keep my body healthy. Coach always says your body is just like a car and you have to be put the right gas in it. I'm just staying healthy."
Although Merrell started all but one game at the strong side linebacker position in 2011, he split time with then true freshman Kevin Snyder. The two entered the summer in a competition for the starting job, but eleven practices in and Merrell is still holding his own with the first-team defense.
"I'm happy with how I performed. There is always room for improvement," Merrell said. "That's my biggest thing right now, just staying focused and improving on every little thing and trying to get better each day."
Merrell was effective last season, finishing with 44 tackles but has put in an extra effort to top last season's performance.
That effort has been evident in his play this summer.
"I've improved a lot. Since the spring I've improved my weak points andI just get in my playbook and benefit everything I already have," Merrell said. "So I'm on another level, I feel real good."
The extra effort has also improved Merrell form a physical standpoint. He is much more muscular than he was last season and a far cry from what he looked like as a true freshman.
Coincidentally, Merrell provides himself with a daily reminder of just how far he has come.
"I actually have an old picture in my locker from high school and I look at it every day," said Merrell, who is now a solid 227 pounds. "I look at it like 'whoa, I came a long way.' It's a motivation thing, a mental thing to see where you started out from. Everybody's goal is to make it to the NFL and to get there you have to keep working and keep working."
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