It is rare, especially at the higher classifications, that a freshman will contribute to a varsity football program.
In other sports, you see a pitcher or a point guard, a setter or a goalie jump right in and perform. But football normally shies away from that, usually because of the physical gap in the sport between an incoming ninth-grader and a rising senior.
Rare is the athlete who does not look out of place at that young age. Nate Maulsby was one of those four years ago, the first in a wave of freshmen Denison has been able to count on during his four seasons.
“I was kinda little on the d-line. There were other guys who thought they should have been moved up,” Maulsby said. “Some people were wondering why I got moved up. At the beginning I was wondering why I got moved up.”
Now as his senior season hits the final stretch after Denison has the District 7-5A (II) bye this week, there only four guaranteed games — starting with a crucial home match-up against Frisco next Friday — unless the Jackets advance to the playoffs for the third straight time.
“You’ve got four games left, make them the best four games you’ve played,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said.
Maulsby started as a stand-up defensive end back then; he is a hulking linebacker on his way to leading Denison in tackles for a second straight season. He has been a leader both on the field and off, helping to shepherd in a new wave of youngsters as well.
Through six games this season, Maulsby has totaled 75 tackles, 10 for a loss, with two sacks and four quarterback pressures. The first three categories lead the team and he is second to Jordin Hunter in pressures. Maulsby also has a fumble recovery and an interception, which he returned 31 yards for a touchdown against Princeton as part of a third-quarter surge that led to a blowout victory.
“Being smarter with the game — knowing pre-snap reads, looking at the line, knowing what plays they like to do, what we can key in,” Maulsby said. “You have to be locked in at all times but you still need to have fun out there.”
Maulsby has all the traits one wants in a linebacker. He is strong against the run, can be an effective blitzer and can drop into coverage.
“Just what you think a middle linebacker is supposed to be,” Rogers said. “Nate has played extremely well. You don’t see him miss many tackles.”
In 2017 he was a first-team all-district selection in helping Denison to an 8-3 mark — the program’s best in nearly a decade — and a runner-up district finish. Despite missing a couple of games he still tied for the team lead with 106 tackles, including 12 for a loss, and three sacks.
Over the summer he was selected to compete in the 2018 Blue-Grey All-American Bowl, one of three versions of the all-star game in December at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
His steady improvement from those freshman snaps was obvious as worked to become second team all-district as a sophomore. He continued to grow into the role he has now.
“We tell the kids a lot of times, you’re building the foundation for future generations,” Rogers said. “His work ethic is phenomenal. He’s one of our leaders If I move somebody up, it’s not to be on JV. These guys come up and start and Nate fit right in.”
Maulsby understands what it is like to be the new kid on the block. In front of him, Hunter was called up midway through his freshman season in 2016 and been a stalwart in the middle of the defensive line ever since. Behind him, Keleon Vaughn is having a breakout sophomore season, already with four interceptions after gaining plenty of experience last season. On the other side of the ball, Maulsby goes up against the latest freshmen sensations in Jadarian Price, who has 117 carries for 813 yards and eight touchdowns, and tries to fend off the blocking of h-back Dameon Smallwood in practice every day.
“You just have to stay relaxed with it. Don’t let the pressure get to you,” Maulsby said. “It’s a game and you’re doing something you love.”