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August 22, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Napoleon adjusting to new life

MORGANTOWN — There always are freshmen who come to West Virginia University and suffer badly from being homesick. Upset stomach, seldom sleep, don’t know where they are ... and it lasts until they go a night without beer at America’s No. 1 party school.

This, however, was not the case with freshman football player Brandon Napoleon, a solid kid with a strong pedigree and a lot of talent.

Nope, his case of homesickness was the real deal.

“The first week of the summer I was really homesick,” he said. “It was a big adjustment, coming from Jersey, seeing all the mountains and scenery. I’m not used to it.”

When he wasn’t practicing football with the Mountaineers, trying to impress Daron Roberts with his cornerback play, the 6-foot, 175-pounder out of Rahway, N.J., via the national powerhouse that is St. Peter’s Prep, would call home twice a day to talk to the family.

And when he did, he would get his father on the phone, a father with a strong name at WVU.

His father was Eugene Napoleon, a running back on the 1988 team that played for the national title. He built quite a career at WVU, rushing for 1,001 career yards and six touchdowns, catching 16 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and returning kickoffs for 573 yards and one 94-yard touchdown.

Napoleon has gone on to make a name for himself after WVU, first playing football in the Arena League, then as a sports agent and as an author, writing the book “Dream Real,” which is promoted as “a top sports agent’s tips for teens serious about going pro.”

And then this summer he found himself offering a different kind of advice to a teenager serious about going pro — his son.

“He told me to stay in there and stick it out,” Brandon recalled. “It was hard. I was very close to my family, to my grandmother, and it got to me the first week. But after that I got acclimated, and everything has been fine.”

That was important because now he was involved in major college football and on the bottom rung of the ladder, a freshman not trying to win games, simply trying to win a place on the team rather than have to redshirt his freshman year.

Camp ended this weekend, and he had no idea of whether he had pushed his way into the rotation.

“I guess I’ll find out,” he said. “If I do redshirt, then I will just take the extra year to get better and come out next year and do what I have to do. If I don’t, then I’ll work hard and try to get playing time.”

The two starting corners were etched in stone in Brodrick Jenkins and Pat Miller, a pair of seniors, and there were some upperclassmen in backup roles, but Napoleon came in with three top-of-the-line freshmen in himself, Rick Rumph and Nana Kyeremeh.

“Over the next couple of days we’ll go back to the tape and evaluate the young guys along with the older guys,” Roberts said. “He’s shown some flashes we like. We like Rumph and Nana and him, and we’ll make a decision from there.”

Napoleon, of course, hears all the time the question of how he compares with his father.

“We play two different positions, but every time I see someone who knows him they ask if I am going to be better than my dad,” he said. “He always tells me he wants me to be better and to be more successful than him. It comes down to I’m not going to focus on that. He had a great legacy here and hopefully I’ll have a great legacy, too.”

It certainly hasn’t been easy making an impression playing against one of the best offenses in college football as a freshman, trying to cover the likes of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin and J.D. Woods. Freshmen, no matter how good, make mistakes, both technical mistakes and mental mistakes.

The best advice he’s gotten from his coach, Roberts, however, hasn’t had anything to do with eliminating those mistakes.

“Be aggressive ... and don’t take anything from nobody. The offensive guys tell you to get out of the way, there’s going to be a fight. Just go back at them and handle your business,” Roberts told him.

And whenever he has needed them, the seniors have been around to help.

“They’re great. We watch extra film every day after practice. They help me a lot learning my coverages. They work with me and Rick (Rumph),” he said. “The seniors have been like a big brother for us. They take us under their wing.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine just how big the step is from high school to college, especially at the corner. One way to picture it is to remember some of the troubles Brandon Hogan had early in his career before winding up an NFL cornerback.

Still, Napoleon is confident he can make the jump right away.

“My high school played good competition. It has been another level up here, but not anything I wasn’t prepared for. It’s faster and bigger. But my techniques from high school and coach Roberts’ techniques, along with all the help I get from Brodrick and Pat, all you have to do is learn your plays and you’ll be fine,” he said.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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