NEW CASTLE —
Whether you’re talking about 6-foot-5, 270-pound Neshannock High senior Steven Jeffries or 5-9, 175 Mohawk senior Shane McFarland, the word fits.
Both players battled through early-season injuries to lead their respective football squads through the 2013 season and in the process, earned scholarships to continue their football and academic careers at Football Championship Subdivision institutions.
Jeffries, a son of Robert and Amy Jeffries, signed his binding letter of intent to play at Youngstown State University yesterday, while McFarland, a son of Brian and Lucinda McFarland, committed to Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Jeffries missed minimal action after unknowingly tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the Lancers’ 35-14 win over Big Seven Conference foe Shenango in Week 4.
“Once (the YSU coaching staff) found that out about Steven, there was no doubt he was a guy they wanted to have in their program,” Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio said. “He came back and played the entire season. Never missed a workout. Never missed a practice. Never missed a game.
“He laid it all on the line for his teammates, his coaches and his community. He played the entire season with that injury. You could see he was dragging, but he refused to come out of the lineup. My respect for Steven as a football player and his toughness is unbelievable. That’s something I won’t ever forget.”
McFarland suffered an abdominal injury in the Warriors’ 35-8 triumph over Freedom in Week 1 and typically never left the field after.
“For a running back, that can be a serious problem,” Mohawk coach Joe Lamenza said. “People don’t understand how much pain he played through this year. Every once in a while, you’d see him wince, but he never complained. He never asked to come out. He just elevated his performance every week. His toughness, durability and stamina was just incredible.
“I was asked by a lot of college coaches to describe him in word. I just kept coming back to ‘tough.’ He’s just a tough, physical football player. I can’t think of a better compliment to give to a player.”
JEFFRIES TO YSU
Youngstown State began recruiting Jeffries after his junior year with the Lancers.
“YSU was one the first schools to show interest,” said Jeffries, who’s considering accounting as a major. “They made their first offer after my junior year. I got to know (former YSU assistant head coach and current Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark) Mangino really well. He was my main recruiter. I felt really comfortable going there and that had a lot to do with my decision.
“At first, I said I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, but after talking with my parents more and more, I know they want to see me play. It’s good to know that if I need to get home in case of an emergency that I’m right here.”
Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pa., and a handful of Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference schools also showed interest.
“I just wanted to play at the highest level that I could,” Jeffries said. “I went to Bucknell to watch a game. I don’t know how I felt about the location. It was so far away and it was up in the mountains. Plus, they weren’t going to give me the scholarship money that YSU was giving me.”
Jeffries potentially will learn a new position at the collegiate level.
The Penguins likely will redshirt Jeffries this fall to allow him to gain weight and shift inside to either guard or tackle.
“They said they’re going to put me through their lifting program for the next year,” he said. “Most likely, I’m going to be a guard or a tackle. We’ll see how my body fills out and then we’ll go from there.
“I’m for whatever the team needs. Whatever they say, I’m not going to argue. If at all possible, I’d love to continue to play tight end, but I know the way they want my body to fill out so that I’m going to be close to 300 pounds. There aren’t too many 300-pound tight ends out there.”
Jeffries earned postseason awards for his efforts during his senior campaign.
The Pennsylvania Football News named Jeffries to its Class A all-state team as a defensive lineman, while the Big Seven coaches selected him as a first-team tight end and second-team defensive lineman.
“When I first came to Neshannock, Steven Jeffries had a lot of question marks surrounding him,” Mozzocio said. “Everybody I talked to wasn’t necessarily doubting him, but were like he’s a big kid, but .... That was always the answer I got about him.
“I sat Steven down right away and I laid it on the line. I told him what the conversations were and what people were saying. I said ‘Hey, we can stick with this or we can do something about it.’ Steven jumped right on board. He wanted to do something about it and prove something to people. We put a plan together and he stuck by it. He worked his tail off and had total dedication to the system and the program. He’s reaping the benefits of that hard work. I couldn’t be prouder of the young man and the dedication he’s put in to being a great football player.”
MCFARLAND IS RMU BOUND
The Colonials were the front-runners in the sweepstakes for McFarland’s services early in the recruiting process.
A pair of visits to Robert Morris’ campus ultimately eliminated Mercyhurst, Edinboro, Clarion and Mount Union from consideration.
“Early on in the process, I think he really liked Robert Morris,” Lamenza said. “It’s a good time to be there. Coach (Joe) Walton is retiring and Coach (John) Banaszak is taking over. I think most of the staff is staying on board. The program is on solid ground. It’s top-notch football. It’s a good league. I’m really happy with his decision. He took his time and thought it out.”
McFarland said he was at ease with his future coaches and the university’s facilities.
“I felt comfortable there and I had a good relationship with the coaching staff,” he said. “They invited me to a game early in the season, so I went for the visit. I really liked it. They invited me back for a more personal visit. I got a closer look at the facilities that I might be using when I went there.”
He also liked being under an hour away from home.
“That was another factor in my decision,” said McFarland, who’d like to major in either engineering or sports medicine. “Robert Morris is only about 45 minutes away. I’m close to my family, so I wanted to stay close. This way we can keep in touch. It was far enough, but not too far away.”
The Colonials’ coaching staff will keep McFarland at safety when he reports to preseason camp this summer.
“I’m sure it’ll be different,” he said. “I’ll have to adjust to the speed of the game. That just means that I have to get in the weight room and get bigger and stronger. I have to get myself prepared. I’d love to go in and play right away, but at almost any college, you’re likely not going to start or play as a freshman. My goal is to get on the bus at least. If that doesn’t happen, redshirting would help, because I could get stronger and practice with the team. I’d be able to learn the playbook.”
Lamenza said McFarland has the ability to excel at the FCS level.
“He’s an explosive football player with pretty good speed,” the Mohawk coach said. “He’s smart. He was the quarterback of our defense. He’ll need all those attributes at the next level. We talked about the differences between high school football and playing football at Robert Morris. He’s going to be playing with a bunch of guys that are like him. That’s where his explosiveness will be an asset to him.
“He’s a tough, gritty football player. He was a good cover guy and he’s a big, physical safety. He wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there. He had some big hits. He had some amazing interceptions this year. He’s a complete safety.”
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