PITTSBURGH — In 2014, after three years of playing against punishing St. Francis safety Jake DeMedal, Duquesne head coach Jerry Schmitt got a reprieve.
DeMedal graduated and ended his collegiate career with a tryout offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Impressed with the tenacity and ability that allowed an undersized safety to become a two-time all-conference player, Schmitt decided he didn’t want to face another one, so he recruited Jake’s younger brother, Spencer.
Three games into his second season at Duquesne, Spencer has already made Schmitt look good for that decision.
After working exclusively on special teams in 2017, DeMedal has locked down a role as Duquesne’s starting free safety and through three games, leads the Dukes in tackles with 20.
DeMedal was a two-sport athlete at Wilmington Area High School in the northern reaches of Lawrence County. Just six feet tall, he can dunk a basketball, and when his team was in need of a three-point buzzer-beater to win a game, DeMedal was the guy with the ball in his hand.
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On the football field, he played quarterback, running back, safety and returned kicks. His high school film is full of him making plays in all phases of the game and he was voted Lawrence County male athlete of the year.
So, it was pretty clear that Schmitt and the Dukes were getting an athlete. But there’s a difference between a high-school athlete and a collegiate one. There’s a reason that despite his pedigree and obvious athleticism, only five Division I schools offered DeMedal a scholarship. But now listed at 200 pounds, DeMedal can hardly be called undersized any longer.
“He was similar in the fact that his brother was a skinny guy like him and then put on 20-25 pounds and became a wrecking machine at safety,” Schmitt said. “He’s built the same way and he’s starting to grow into his body. We thought we were getting the same thing and he’s starting to take flight.”
“I definitely learned the speed of the game is a lot different than in high school,” DeMedal said. “Everyone’s a lot bigger, more physical and faster. Freshman year, even just playing special teams, I got up to speed on all of that at the college level. I’ve adapted well and my teammates have helped me.”
After getting up to speed physically, the next step for DeMedal to make his mark was to learn the intricacies of Duquesne defensive coordinator Dave Opfar’s scheme.
“When the coaches recruited me, I feel like they knew I had athleticism,” DeMedal said. “The biggest thing for me freshman year was definitely the mental aspect. The defense that I ran in high school wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as this one. My freshman year helped me get through all that and now I’m up to speed, so I’m just playing.”
DeMedal hasn’t just earned a role, though. He’s been one of Duquesne’s best defensive players. He has 20 tackles — 10 solo — and a pass breakup. While just a true sophomore making his first real impact, it didn’t come as a total surprise to Schmitt.
“We knew that would be a possibility, even last year, when he was on all the special teams,” Schmitt said. “He’s a very intelligent player. He’s a pre-med student. We knew that could be a possibility. He’s a physical kid as well as a good athlete. So, I don’t know if we knew it would happen that fast, but he’s playing really well and he’s still learning. Making little mistakes, but it’s great to work with a young man like that.”
“Through the first three games, I’ve been getting more and more comfortable,” DeMedal added. “As a defense, you can always improve, but I’m liking where we’re at right now.”
And when DeMedal falls short, there’s always more than one person to tell him about it. Schmitt, Opfar and the rest of the Duquesne defensive staff, of course, and then there’s his personal coach, his older brother Jake.
“He’s my role model,” Spencer said. “Before every game, he texts me. He tells me what I did well, he tells me what I did wrong — straight up. He’s always been my biggest support guy. I love him for it.”