• Erin Summers

A Look Forward: Freshmen Who Have Shined In 2021

by Erin Summers

For a freshman to get playing time in major college football, the play usually has to be really exceptional. To play as a freshman at a service academy . . . well, it's rare.

However, each season, there are a few exceptional freshmen who step up to the challenge, whether it has been out of necessity, injuries or because they've proven themselves in practice.

Here are some Service Academy freshmen who have shown their coaches that there's a lot to look forward to in the years to come:

For the Navy Midshipmen, one such player is slotback Maquel Haywood. The freshman from Wake Forest, North Carolina first caught his coach's eye in practice.

"We kind of knew that, I think, he jumps close to 40 inches on a vertical. So when you see that, when he did that, like, well, this kid's special and it's been showing up, really, all season. But it really showed up on that long kickoff return for a touchdown.

Navy football freshman Maquel Haywood carries the ball during a kick return during a football game against the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 23, 2021 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, MD.
Navy freshman slotback Maquel Haywood returns the ball after a kick during a football game against the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 23, 2021 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, MD. Haywood is one of just a few freshman who have made contributions to their teams in the 2021 Service Academy football season.

It wasn't just a touchdown. it was a 98-yard touchdown return against East Carolina (on November 20th) that tied for the longest kick return in Navy history. The freshman's nine kick returns leads the Midshipmen this season.

Haywood is humble about his success, owing much of it to the leadership of his senior teammates and their support.

"These seniors," Haywood says, "they're great leaders, great mentors. And senior running backs came up to me, said, 'Just keep your head down, keep going, keep going.' In particular, [senior co-captain] Chance Warren coming up to me, just saying, 'Just play ball. It's nothing but football. Do your thing.'"

But doing your thing one year removed from high school is not always easy.

"Playing football at this level is a lot different than playing high school," said Army Head Coach Jeff Monken, "even the very best high schools in the country. Playing FBS football is a lot different, and so it makes it a lot more difficult to break the lineup as a freshman unless you're just way more talented than the other guys, and physically developed enough that you can step in there and make a contribution.

"Probably the guy that's making the biggest contribution as a freshman is Max DiDominico. He's a true freshman, a direct freshman, played high school football in Schertz, Texas last year. And now he's making a significant contribution both on defense and on special teams."

DiDomenico was a quarterback in high school but switched to defensive back this season.

"Coming here was definitely a transition," DiDominico said. "The first few weeks, got to get my feet different. The summer was all about DB and breaks and it wasn't a three-step drop anymore, so the transition was weird. But it's been fun!"

DiDominico has played in six games so far this season and had a key pass break-up on a fake field goal against Bucknell.

At the Air Force Academy, it's tough to crack the lineup as a freshman there too. Just ask now-graduating senior Demonte Meeks about his experience.

"You come in, and a lot of freshman don't play," the linebacker said, "You know, freshman year I was getting beat every practice, so I knew what it felt like,"

But two of his freshman teammates have bucked that trend and are making significant contributions for the Falcons this season.

Freshman kicker Matthew Dapore was a two-sport star in high school in Ohio: football and baseball. He has hit seven field goals this season, including a key 49-yarder against Nevada, and is 27 of 28 attempts on points after touchdowns.

Freshman punter Carson Bay was all-state in Florida and has a 41-yard average in his dozen kicks so far this season.

"And what's neat, you know," says Falcons' Head Coach Troy Calhoun of his freshmen booters. "Both of those guys were guys that we wanted and they had some other opportunities, and I'll tell you what really, really makes you proud is when you look at the halfway point of the semester, these are both guys that are really, really up there academically, which is just credit to their diligence, their discipline and their focus. And I think when you live that way, when it comes to life, you don't do some things kind of sorta. And then all of a sudden you think, 'Well, I'll flip the switch on,' you know. Just characterize you, that's who you are and everything you attack. And those guys are."

Another freshman standout is Joe Armentrout from the Coast Guard Academy who, late in the season, stepped in as the starting quarterback for the Bears.

If there's one thing that these freshmen-of-note have in common, it's their appreciation.

"I feel like I've been super blessed," Army's DiDomenico said. "God has blessed me to be in this position. Bit like I said, the team really, really just brought me in and brought all the freshmen and I felt like there were. When I got the opportunity, they go up with the varsity, I felt like I was ready."

"It's an honor to play this game," Haywood of Navy said, "Playing this game at this level, especially playing at this school is different from any other school in the nation. And I'm living a dream and we just got to be able to finish. That's it, just finish these games off."

As we look ahead to 2022, Academy football fans, remember the names of Marquel Haywood, Max DiDomenico, Matthew Dapore, Carson Bay and Joe Armentrout. They are sure to be names you'll hear called out often in the 2022 season.

edited for web by Joe Harman