By Tom Bone
For The Register-Herald
When Jake Lilly signed with the Concord University football program, his new coaches faced a problem: What to do with him?
At Bluefield High, he had played running back, linebacker, safety and was the emergency quarterback on Beavers teams that won two state championships. At Concord, he spent his freshman year on special teams and being tried out at various defensive positions.
Eventually, they figured it out, and on Tuesday, the middle linebacker was named Defensive Player of the Year by the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Lilly, an all-conference first-team honoree for the second time, said, “God’s given me everything I’ve got so far. I’m appreciative.”
When given the choice of running back or linebacker three years ago, Lilly said, “I said I want to be at linebacker because that’s where I feel more comfortable — where I can make the most plays.
“It would feel weird not to hit people.”
Statistics helped clinch the award. Lilly is fourth among all players in NCAA Division II in total tackles per game (11.45), and fifth in solo tackles (69). He finished the 2012 season with 126 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, six pass break-ups and one-half of a quarterback sack.
As a unit, Concord was 14th nationally in total defense.
Lilly said his national ranking is “a good accomplishment,” but it doesn’t drive his ambition. “I just want to compete,” he said. “I don’t worry about how I finish. I just want to play the best I can for my team, my coaches and my family.”
The Mountain Lions football program, which finished in a tie for second in the conference this fall, has had the last two defensive players of the year. Linebacker Joe Greenway won it in 2011, when Concord won the conference championship and was nationally ranked.
It was impossible not to notice Lilly a year ago, after making 115 tackles, 10 of them for loss of yardage. He’s led the WVIAC in tackles for two years straight.
Concord defensive coordinator Paul Price said, “He’s a tough guy to slot, because by height and weight (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), he really fits the safety position better than he does the linebacker position.
“But at safety, he just wasn’t as comfortable. He seemed to be a guy that likes to be close to the action. He wanted to stick his nose in and go face-to-face with people.
“It took us about a year to figure that out.”
Lilly said, “I might be a small linebacker, but I can play it.”
Mountain Lions head coach Garin Justice said Lilly “has one of the best noses for the ball I’ve seen, and I’ve been at West Virginia and at Florida State. I’ve seen guys who are bigger, better athletes, but Jake is as good as I’ve ever seen.”
“Jake has that knack for getting to the ball ... and he does a great job of finishing the play when he gets there.”
A college linebacker’s job is a tough one, Price explained.
“In the old train of thought, the defensive front stops the run, the secondary stops the pass, and linebackers are the guys that transition to stop both. That can be difficult at times, because you’ve got to be two places simultaneously, and — last I checked — that’s tough to do,” Price said. “Jake does it as well as anyone.”
Lilly said about Price, “I listen to every word he says.”
He added, “I can’t give enough credit to my defensive line, especially Josh Miller, who’s a great athlete. ... Having a great defensive line helps me make tackles, and we have a great secondary. That just shows, just having great athletes surrounding you makes good things happen.”
Price, the defensive chief, said, “There are intricate reads a linebacker must comprehend. Jake has shown he recognizes those, and what’s more, he’s able to stop a variety of plays ... a variety of schemes. He’s not a one-trick pony. That’s how a linebacker evolves.
“Jake also sees the big picture of the team. He sees where problems may be, and he solves the problem.
“He’s always had great speed and great reaction. The difference now is, he’s able to anticipate things coming at him. He’s starting to see things on a real advanced level. That’s what you hope for in a player.”
Lilly said, “It all started with my dad. He got me where I am today. He can tell me what I’m doing wrong, just by hand motions. He’s like a coach in the press box for me.”
He got stronger and faster by working out in the Bluefield High School weight room with coach Fred Simon. “He’s just a great coach,” Lilly said. “He’s taught me a lot of what I know now.”
Even though Lilly was a dominating force last season, Justice said, “Jake probably came in to this preseason in the best shape I’ve ever seen him. You can tell he put in a lot of hard work and dedication in getting ready for the season.”
Lilly said, “I’m just tryin’ to get faster, and stronger, and coached to do the best that I can do.”
Lilly is joined on the first team this year by former Bluefield and Concord teammate Ansel Ponder, who caught 61 passes for 764 yards, and defensive back Riyahd Richardson, who was nationally ranked with five interceptions. He was also a first-team pick last year.
The complete all-conference list includes 19 Concordians. Among them is senior quarterback Zack Grossi, whose season ended after two games as a result of a car accident that was not his fault.
“We’re very proud,” Justice said of the multiple honors. “It means that we’re starting to develop a program, and starting to develop talent. We’ve shown this year that we’ve had a lot of adversity, had to have a lot of players to step up, and still found ways to win football games.
“And we’re developing not only talent, but local talent, like Jake and Ansel, both from Bluefield. That’s nice to see.”
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