West free safety tries to think ahead of opponent
MOUNT ULLA — Charlotte commitment Najee Tucker is a Division I guy, not just because he has great size (6-2, 195) and good speed (4.6) but because he’s smart.
“One of the most intelligent guys I’ve coached,” West defensive coordinator Lee Linville said. “A lot of times, it’s Najee that gets us lined up right.”
Tucker (his first name is pronounced Na-Jay) is West’s free safety. He made a play in Friday’s 34-17 win at East Rowan that not many guys are going to make.
“I saw when East lined up that they were in a formation we hadn’t seen,” Tucker explained. “We had prepared for a possible halfback pass or double pass at some time, and I knew that one of the backs (Max Wall) could throw and one of the receivers (Noah Drye) used to be the quarterback. Then when (receiver) Seth Wyrick just took off without blocking anybody I knew something was going on. Wyrick always blocks somebody.”
As Tucker figured, it was a trick play. QB Samuel Wyrick had gotten the ball to Drye, and Drye was looking to throw to the other Wyrick deep.
Tucker’s responsibility on the play was receiver Chandler Smith, but he realized Seth Wyrick had to be the primary target and so he left Smith and sprinted in that direction. Wyrick looked open, and it may have been a big play for East, but then Tucker arrived, He not only picked off the pass, he took it to the house for the clinching touchdown.
“He recognized East had come out with a different formation,” Linville said. “He picks up on things like that.”
It was the third pick-6 of Tucker’s career and his fourth defensive TD. Oddly enough, his first career touchdown came against East when he picked off a pass by Drye in 2011.
Tucker has three interceptions this season. That ties him for the county lead, with, among others, his Southeast Middle School buddy Tre Williams, who plays for Carson. “Tre and I played basketball together a long time,” Tucker said. “We talk back and forth about the interceptions.”
Tucker had a fourth interception (for a touchdown) this season wiped out when linebacker Nick Collins was called for roughing the passer against Northwest Cabarrus. “He’s real close to having seven or eight picks,” Linville said. “He’s been fighting in the air for a lot of balls and has gotten his hands on balls. He’s been in the right position to make interceptions a lot.”
While Tucker is usually West’s last line of defense against the pass, he’s still primarily a run-stopper in West’s scheme.
“We knew how well East has been throwing the ball, but you still have to take care of the run first,” Tucker said. “That’s how it is every week.”
East runs the option out of the veer. West’s defense historically has been devastating against option teams, in large part because of great safeties. Against East, physical strong safety Zeke Blackwood’s option responsibility usually was going to be the quarterback, while Tucker, once he was sure it was a running play, would come flying up to take the pitch man.
“Running the alley,” West head coach Scott Young said. “Supporting the run defense is where Najee has gotten a lot better. He can be pretty physical against the run.”
East throws a lot of stuff at a defense. The balanced Mustangs entered the game averaging 189 passing yards and 142 rushing yards. West held East to an average rushing night, while limiting East’s passing game to a season-low 98 yards.
“East is very good at running the wheel routes and the slants,” Linville said. “We knew they’d complete some slants, but the gameplan was for us to make the tackle for a short gain and make them do it all over again.”
Seth Wyrick said Tucker was the key to limiting those slants. The cornerbacks and linebackers helped out, and Tucker often was able to use his size and strength to stay on the inside of East’s receiver. Samuel Wyrick came in with a stellar 53 percent completion rate but was held to 38-percent completions by the Falcons.
“Najee is just a very good player,” Seth Wyrick said. “We knew he would make it tough to throw the slant because he also played us tough on those last year.”
Tucker, who also is a fixture on West’s often very special special-teams units, has come a long way. “He had a knee injury as a freshman,” Young said. “He never had a chance to play jayvee football. We brought him straight to the varsity as a sophomore.”
Tucker was thought of at one time mostly as a basketball player. He’s not a shooter, but he can jump, rebound and defend. He averaged close to double figures for the Falcons as a junior on stickbacks and layups.
He’ll be an asset to Mike Gurley and West hoops again this winter, but right now he’s busy proving he’s one of the county’s top football players.
“This season (5-3) hasn’t been as good as we wanted,” Tucker said. “But there’s a lot of season left.”