At 5-11 and 228 pounds, Rogers High School linebacker Diontre Earl has cruised beneath the radar range of most big-time Division I college football programs, whose recruiters often draw a line at about 6-2 and rarely consider athletes who fail to measure up.
In Earl's case, however, a more specialized instrument may be required. One that gauges the intangible known as heart.
The Rams' defensive leader - who plays nearly every down at maximum intensity - sold 11 opposing coaches with his ferocity and pursuit skill this season.
The most recent believer was Akron Buchtel coach Claude Brown, whose Griffins beat Rogers 33-12 in the Division II playoffs. Brown raved about “No. 56” after the game, and suggested that college recruiters who overlook him simply because of size may be making a sizable mistake.
City League coaches like Doug Pearson (Start), Dick Cromwell (St. Francis) and Matt Dzierwa (St. John's) agree, and endorsements like these are why Earl is The Blade Player of the Year for the 2000 season.
“Diontre's got the biggest heart of any football player I've ever seen,” said 10-year assistant and first-year Rogers head coach Rick Rios. “He just has a knack for making plays. Mostly it's because he just wants to get to the ball worse than anybody on the field.
“He plays every down like it's his last play and he's got to get to the ball or it's the end of his existence.”
As a junior, Earl made 130 tackles, including 21 behind the line of scrimmage, and was named All-Ohio. This year, Earl was again the bell cow on a much deeper defense this season for the 9-2 City League champions.
He had 113 tackles during 10 regular-season games, including 67 primary hits and 15 tackles for losses. The Rams' next leading tackler - on a defense that allowed 82 yards rushing and 99 passing per game - had 63 stops. Earl also led Rogers with four fumble recoveries.
“He plays with extreme intensity,” Start's Pearson said of Earl. “He runs through people the entire time he's on the field. The longer he has to run to tackle you, the angrier he is when he gets there.
“I don't understand this knock on his size by colleges because he can flat-out play. I noticed him last year when he had 21 tackles against us. He's one of the best the City League's seen in a long time.”
“Tre attacks everything downhill,” Rios said. “He doesn't take too many steps backwards. A lot of linebackers will give some ground before they come up, where he attacks the ball.
“Also, he thinks the game kind of like a coach. He's very good at reading keys and he's got a nose for the ball. He's always there for one reason: his motor is always running. He gets excited to play a team whether they're 0-10 or 10-0. He just loves to play football.”
Earl, who began playing organized football in sixth grade in the Toledo CYO league for the St. Martin de Porres elementary school team, says he's always enjoyed the game.
“I was a good linebacker back then, too,” the personable Earl joked. “I could always hit.”
Throughout his high school career, Earl's confidence grew along with his desire to excel and his understanding of defensive schemes.
“I can read plays a lot faster than most guys and I just get there a lot quicker,” Earl said. “I think that's my advantage. I see the plays before they happen.”
And what keeps that motor running?
“I just like playing football,” he said. “As far back as I can remember, it's my favorite thing to do. I dream about making big hits and silencing a whole crowd.”
Earl, well aware of the knock on his height, offers simple rationale to college recruiters.
“A couple of inches aren't going to make me a better football player,” said Earl, whose favorite NFL player, fittingly, is the Miami Dolphins' 5-11, all-pro linebacker Zach Thomas. “I think I'm the best linebacker in this area and whoever takes a chance on me is going to be very happy.”
Rios - who says several Mid-American Conference schools, including Toledo and Bowling Green, have shown moderate interest - agrees.
“Diontre's size is a bit of a drawback,” Rios said. “If he were 6-2 or 6-3, everybody in the country would want him. I wish I could put what he's got inside a bottle and give it to everybody on our team. Thinking about walking out there next year without him in the middle scares me.”