Najarian contributes in senior year
Muhlenberg’s Jake Najarian has gone through plenty of changes during his collegiate days.
One his biggest adjustments came just a few months ago. It was an adjustment the entire football team had to deal with.
Longtime Muhlenberg football head coach Mike Donnelly passed away in early October due to complications of leukemia. He was the coach to dozens of players in 2017 and hundreds in his 21 years as coach, including Najarian for four seasons.
“Coach Donnelly left his legacy at Muhlenberg not only through wins and losses, but by being an influential man on campus,” Najarian said. “The amount which he genuinely cared about each of his players was exemplified by him taking the time to get to know us each on a personal level.”
Donnelly left Muhlenberg with the most wins in program history. He entered 2017 with a 140-74 record. He hadn’t finished with a losing record since going 3-7 in 2009. But to his players, his story goes way beyond records and statistics.
“Between Coach Donnelly’s battle with leukemia and season-ending injuries to several of our key players, odds were not exactly in our favor,” Najarian said. “Being able to overcome such great levels of adversity makes the success taste even sweeter.”
The Mules recently capped an 8-3 campaign despite a whirlwind of emotions since the season kicked off back in early September. It ended with a 32-6 win over Carnegie Mellon as the Mules won the ECAC Asa S. Bushnell Bowl. The Mules hadn’t won a playoff game since 2007.
A part of the Mules’ run in 2017 was Najarian, a 2014 graduate of Northwestern High School. His team not only snapped a postseason winless drought, but it also kept the legacy of Muhlenberg’s longtime coach alive.
“After seldom seeing the field during my first three years at Muhlenberg, I was finally able to earn a role in which I contributed toward team wins on a weekly basis,” Najarian said. “Despite understanding that I was never going to be a star collegiate football player, I was able to serve as a leader to the defensive line position group while continuing to train to the best of my ability.”
Like his time at Northwestern when he played defensive end, Najarian spend his first three years at Muhlenberg at that same position. But to fill a need during his senior campaign, Najarian transitioned to nose guard and played exceptional as a role player for the Mules in 2017.
“The philosophy behind Coach Donnelly’s 3-4 Okie defense requires the five-technique to get penetration and interrupt blocking schemes, often in a sacrificial manner that allows the featured linebackers to make plays,” Najarian said. “Coming from [Northwestern defensive coordinator Scott Hippensteel’s] 4-4 defense at Northwestern where the defense ends play similar to a rush linebacker, the transition was greater than I may have initially anticipated.”
Najarian, a 6-foot, 217-pound senior, played in nine games in 2017, making four tackles including one for a loss.
He was also undersized at the position, yet made up for that lack of size in other aspects.
“Often tasked with taking on double-teams and zone-combos, I was tasked to quickly improve my leverage and technique to compensate for being undersized by more than 50 pounds,” Najarian said.
Najarian is a mathematics major with a minor in physics. That heavy workload, however, did not deter him from achieving his goal of one day playing collegiate football.
“The student-athlete experience is more challenging, both mentally and physically, than most people may realize,” Najarian said. “Balancing 20 hours per week dedicated to athletics with an already rigorous academic workload can sometimes be exhausting. Nonetheless, it is a rewarding experience that I would not trade.”