RHODY TAKES ON DELAWARE SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 17 AT 1PM LIVE ON YURVIEW – COX CHANNEL 4.
For A.J. Pena, underneath his potential is where you’ll find an endless reservoir of appreciation.
There was a fierceness to Pena that was evident throughout spring practice and summer training camp. A true freshman on this year’s University of Rhode Island football team, the linebacker who’s listed at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds was hard to block – an assessment made on multiple occasions by URI offensive line coach Stefon Wheeler.
“[Wheeler] would say he presents problems,” said head coach Jim Fleming on a recent weekday morning.
Pena’s name did not appear on the two-way depth chart that was released in advance of last Saturday’s intrastate clash at Bryant. Those in attendance at Beirne Stadium probably went from wondering “Who’s this Ram who keeps getting his paws on the quarterback?” to “Wow, this guy doesn’t play like a first-year college player.”
When the final horn sounded in Smithfield, Pena found himself credited with six tackles and 3.5 sacks in the Rams’ 35-21 win over the Bulldogs. It’s an impressive total that helped the Branchburg, N.J. native earn recognition from the Colonial Athletic Association as the conference’s Football Rookie of the Week.
If folks outside of Kingston were sleeping on Pena, they’ve undoubtedly perked up following a “Sack Exchange” of a performance at Bryant’s expense. The road he traveled down that ultimately led him to Rhode Island … that’s where the appreciation comes from.
Upon graduating from New Jersey’s Somerville High School 2021, Pena elected to take a big-picture look at the opportunity to play football at the next level.
“Because of COVID, a lot of guys retained their extra year of eligibility. Scholarships weren’t as freely distributed,” said Pena, who as a high school graduate was on the young side (17 years old).
“I wasn’t as developed,” he added. “I felt I was a good player but not where I wanted to be.”
The football piece of the equation was important, yet the same held true with taking care of business in the classroom. Grade-wise, Pena improved over time at Somerville High. Still, college recruiters weren’t exactly knocking on his door with scholarship offers in tow.
To cross the river that would lead to a college football opportunity, Pena understood that he needed venture out of his New Jersey-based cocoon. Enter Milford Academy, a post-graduate school located in Upstate New York. Within football circles, Milford saw four former players land rookie free agent deals after the 2022 NFL Draft.
Reflecting back, the six months that Pena spent on the Milford Academy campus was exactly what he needed.
“I was isolated from my family for the first time ever. I had to get adjusted to that. I was a mama’s boy. I was always around my mother and my family. It definitely was a big adjustment,” said Pena.
From a football perspective, Milford’s defense geared its attack around Pena and his ability to rush the quarterback. It was an approach that represented a vast departure from how he was utilized in high school when he was a four-down defensive end. Shifted to linebacker by the Milford coaching staff, Pena registered 21 sacks – an eye-popping total that helped take his recruiting to another stratosphere.
“I love getting after it,” said Pena.
Conversations between Pena and Wheeler – the same URI assistant coach who reiterated to Fleming throughout this year’s preseason about the consistency that Pena displayed when it came to attacking the offensive line – offered further proof that it was the correct call to enroll at Milford Academy. Wheeler was the primary recruiter for Pena on behalf of the Rams.
“Coach Wheeler thought going to [Milford Academy] was a big battle test for me. They wanted to see more,” said Pena, who supplied URI with a verbal commitment in advance of last December’s early signing period. “I felt the love from the [URI coaches] on how they were going to use me. I knew it would be different from what I was used to, but I’m an athlete. I can adjust and overcome anything.”
From working hard on the football field, to being equally dedicated in the weight room and classroom, Pena’s early returns with the Rams offer living proof concerning detours and the opportunity for growth. The days of questioning oneself – Are we doing the right thing? – have given way to a more upbeat outlook as one of URI’s “Sack Monsters” looks to make another group of O-linemen sweat on Saturday when nationally-ranked Delaware comes to Meade Stadium (1 p.m. kickoff that airs live on Yurview).
“When it works out and you see results, it’s the best thing ever,” said Pena. “It’s such a blessing.”
Added Fleming, “His attitude of gratitude is evident.”
Brendan McGair is a sportswriter and columnist with the Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call. A graduate of Providence College, McGair is a five-time recipient of the R.I. Sports Writer of the Year Award as voted by the National Sports Media Association (NSMA).
Follow McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03 and on Instagram @bwmcgair.