Noa Merritt commits to play college football for Western Michigan
Posted: Jul 29, 2013 11:07 PM EDT Updated: Jul 29, 2013 11:24 PM EDT
By PETER STEIN
When opposing quarterbacks drift back in the pocket and Noa Merritt's cleat-steps are thundering closer and closer,
holding onto the football for too long is not a good idea.
If those QBs don't get rid of the ball, Merritt will often catch them and plant them into the field.
And as of 2014, Mid-American Conference quarterbacks will have the same problem.
Last week, Merritt committed to playing defensive line for Western Michigan, a Division I football program
he chose over Northern Illinois. Merritt, a Mount Olive resident, still has a season left with Pope John, but in
a little more than a year, he'll get a chance to do some quarterback-crunching at the D-I college level.
Lions head coach Brian Carlson already knows what Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck is getting —
a battering ram on the defensive line.
"To me, the biggest thing is his explosiveness and his motor," Carlson said of Merritt. "He gets off
the ball and he never stops. First quarter to fourth quarter, he goes a hundred miles an hour."
"My quickness helps me compete with the best of them," Merritt said.
For Merritt, Western Michigan — located in Derek Jeter's home town of Kalamazoo — was the school
that offered him everything he wanted.
"The coaching staff played a huge role," Merritt said. "Coach Fleck is a great guy. His energy and
personality made me feel comfortable. And also the town of Kalamazoo is a nice place. It's a real beautiful town.
It has a real old-school feel to it. Everybody is so nice. It's a real welcoming town, real positive energy."
As much as Merritt found Kalamazoo to his liking, he also wanted a chance to play college football.
"Coach (Fleck) was telling me, right off the bat I'm going to be starting, that I'm a player that can contribute
a lot to the team," Merritt said. "That also played a key role in my decision, because I want to get my feet
wet as soon as possible."
Merritt likes that Western Michigan has an ROTC program, because he wants to eventually become a naval officer.
He's also thinking about studying psychiatry, perhaps someday counseling the quarterbacks and running backs
he has tormented on the field.
For now, though, Merritt is focused squarely on playing football. It's been his life, his passion, his identity
since he was a five-year-old in Plainfield, when he wasn't even supposed to be playing football yet.
"I remember when I started," Merritt said, "I was too young to play. But I was so big, they didn't even care. ...
I was never a running back, just pure d-line."
Even then, Merritt liked crashing into skill players. "Yeah, that was always my thing," he said. "Playing flag football, you're not allowed to tackle, but I couldn't help it. I always got yelled at, but they liked my aggressiveness."
Merritt loved being a defender. He tried playing offensive line, but it just wasn't him. "I was never with it," he said.
"I hated offense."
As he grew older, Merritt thought about maybe playing linebacker, one of the sleeker positions. But that wasn't
him either. He was a guy who prided himself on starting plays at the line of scrimmage, then thrusting offensive
linemen aside and chasing down whomever had the ball.
That hasn't changed.
"At the end of the day, I'm just a defensive lineman at heart," Merritt said. "It's what I know best. ...
That feeling you get from sacking the quarterback is like nothing else. ... I can tell you right now,
scoring a touchdown is nothing like sacking the quarterback.
"Plus," Merritt added, "You get in a little dance moves when you sack the quarterback."
Dance moves, as in sack dance.
"You know I've got to have a little dance going," Merritt said. "I've got some moves. It lets me display
my other side, my dancing."
Merritt had plenty of opportunities to put on his boogie shoes last fall, ringing up seven sacks to go with
12 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Pope John win the NJAC American Division crown and landed
on the All-Herald first-team defense.
Among those taking notice of Merritt's skills was Fleck, who became the Football Bowl Subdivision's youngest head coach when he was hired by Western Michigan last December. Fleck is a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coach who, ironically, played wide receiver for Northern Illinois, the other school to offer Merritt a football scholarship. Fleck also played two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2004-05).
The young coach was eager to get a defensive lineman of Merritt's caliber. "We've had conversations,
me and him (Fleck)," Carlson said. "They really think (Merritt) is a big-time player. They wanted him bad.
He's a good fit."
Merritt says that Western Michigan defensive line coach Vinson Reynolds sees him playing a ‘tilted nose' position.
"It's kind of like a regular nose guard," Merritt said, "but it fits my speed. I'll get to be a speed rusher off the edge
and run stopper. I get to contribute in different ways.
"The good part of it is, with a tilted nose, I won't have to put on a lot of weight, a sloppy amount of weight,"
said Merritt, who is 6-1 and roughly 240 pounds. "I don't want to put on a lot of weight and get sloppy.
That wasn't my plan."
Merritt just needs to reach the 265-, 270-pound neighborhood. "But not like a fat mass," he said.
"It's going to be good weight."
With his college football future secure, Merritt returns for his senior high school season, as do teammates
and fellow Division I prospects Noah Brown and Ryan Izzo, along with sophomore quarterback Sonny Abramson,
also a future D-I talent. With those and other elite players back, Merritt and the Lions expect a big season.
"I can focus now on team. Team, team, team," Merritt said. "I can get that state ring I know my
If the Lions do win a state title, it's likely that Merritt will have played a big part.
"We've had 18 practices in July. He's upped his game even more now," Carlson said. "I'm really
looking forward to the fall."