Navy senior captain D.J. Palmore thought about Saturday's game against Notre Dame all week, except on Thursday morning. Palmore wasn't thinking about football at all as he pulled on his crisp working blues and went to join the rest of the seniors in his company in a stuffy room on the top floor of Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. There, the 6-foot-3 linebacker squeezed in the back and stood with a tight smile, gripping his right wrist in his left hand.
"I have never seen him this nervous," said senior slotback Josh Brown, who is also in Palmore's company.
The room soon filled with intermittent cheering and clapping as the men and women in Palmore's company stepped one by one to their company officer to receive a color-coded cupcake. This was the day seniors - first-class midshipmen, as they are called at the academy - learned their service assignments, the reveal that determines the next five years of a midshipman's life, and the culmination of their training and study. Next to graduation, it's the most important day on the calendar.
Palmore was hoping for a cupcake with red frosting, signifying he would be a Marine like his grandfather.
"I don't usually get nervous," he said, "but it just hit me, it's the next five years of my life. I'm pretty sure what it's going to be, but everything I planned - it could be something completely different."
Palmore took a few steps toward the middle of the room when his name was called, opened a small cardboard box and said, "Marine Ground." His friends burst into applause and reached to clap him on the back. Some bit into their cupcakes immediately after learning their assignment. Others opened their boxes and simply nodded. Another member of Palmore's company, one of just 34 seniors out of 1,053 to be assigned to the Navy SEALs, cried.
Palmore carried his box back to his spot in the back of the room and clutched it to his chest for the rest of the ceremony, wearing a wide smile and staring straight ahead, taking it all in.
Palmore didn't get to celebrate his service assignment quite like the rest of his company. He and the rest of the football team left for Notre Dame on Friday morning.
By now, Navy's defensive captain is used to dividing his time between football and military demands. He doesn't call football a distraction from his duties at the academy; it is part of what he came to Annapolis for. But Thursday morning, at least, Navy's 34 seniors weren't thinking about what is perhaps their most important game on the schedule aside from Army.
The Midshipmen (6-3) will head to Notre Dame (8-2) for the 91st consecutive meeting between the programs. They face tough odds to repeat last season's 28-27 victory in Jacksonville. Their quarterbacks are beat up and Notre Dame sits seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings, with extra motivation to rebound from a humbling 41-8 loss at Miami last week.
Palmore, who leads Navy with 10 1/2 tackles for losses and 2 1/2 sacks, will be tasked with leading the defense against the No. 6 rushing offense in the nation. That, however, took a back seat for the most important day of his life at the Naval Academy.
After receiving his assignment, Palmore called his parents in Memphis to tell them the good news, then hustled off to class, then practice, then weight training.
"It's just another game," Palmore said robotically Thursday morning, standing outside of the room where he received his cupcake with glassy eyes, his mind still clearly on the Marines.
"I was thinking if I don't get it, what's gonna be the look on my face? Because I can't be sad," he said. "I was just so excited. It was like opening a Christmas present. Thank goodness, thank goodness. My grandfather was a Marine; it's just really what I want to do. I always knew it was what I wanted to do, but I didn't realize it until it got this close. I don't want to do anything else."
Coach Ken Niumatalolo is used to his players balancing football with their military lives, and that doesn't make him any less demanding. He likes that football provides an occasional reprieve from the stress of the Naval Academy, particularly during road games.
"I'm excited because they're gonna be able to go on the road and sleep," Niumatalolo said of the football-military balance earlier this season. "We load the buses and I think by the time we get to Gate 8 [to leave the Yard], they'll be asleep. I think for them, it's an opportunity to just kind of get away and . . . sleep on the airplane, get a nap, it always bodes well for us, because you can kind of take away the stress."
Of 34 seniors on the team, 15 were assigned to the Marines, 44 percent compared to just less than 24 percent of all first-class midshipmen assigned to the Marines. The Marines are a popular choice among football players because of the team-like atmosphere.
Navy football's director and assistant director of player development, both of whom work closely with the team, also come from the Marines.
Capt. Mallory Dietrich, Palmore's company officer, said football players are "exposed to a lot of Marines down there. They live, breathe, interact with Marines for most of the day."
Dietrich, a Marine herself, is sure Palmore and Brown have the leadership skills and passion to succeed in the Marines. Dietrich told her company to enjoy the moment before continuing with the rest of their days.
"Unless you're here, it's hard to put into words how you'll feel," Dietrich said. "The closest thing I can compare it to is winning a major sporting event. You've just put in all that hard work and dedication over however many years to get to this one moment where you're told hey, we want you to come join us. That's us saying, we want you. The emotion you feel . . . it's almost euphoric. It's better than beating Notre Dame. It feels like winning the Super Bowl."
Palmore hopes to feel both emotions come Saturday night - the residual euphoria of his service assignment and the joy that comes with beating Notre Dame. He has plenty of room in his heart for football and the military.
"It's my life," Palmore said before finally taking a bite of his cupcake. "I'm not nervous anymore."
Navy outside linebacker DJ Palmore, center, applauds as his midshipmen classmates from the 15th company receive their career assignments on November 16, 2017. Palmore was assigned to the Marines.
JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST
Many youth football players fail to understand the need to play "assignment football." This can be one of your biggest headaches when coaching youth football. Too often many players abandon their base alignment, base technique, base read and assignment to pursue their own selfish interests.
In many cases they simply don't know their assignment because it wasn't taught to them properly or wasn't repped enough, while in other cases the player simply decides to ignore what he has been taught.
To give a quick illustration of the need to bring this concept home, every defense must be gap sound in order to be successful. In my version of the WT6 Defense, our defensive tackles have the "C" gap, the gap between the Tackle and Tight End. They are to align there and penetrate to two yards.
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We also have a handful of stunts we call, one of which sends this defensive tackle to the B gap and a linebacker or corner to C, again keeping gap integrity. During our championship game one year, our defensive tackle aligned in the B gap one time and twice aligned in the C gap but slanted to B without any stunt call.
On two of those three plays the other team ran for long touchdowns right in the gap our defensive tackle had vacated. He only made three mistakes the whole game, but two of those mistakes cost us the league title.
Teach Them So They 'Get' It
One way to illustrate the importance of alignment and assignment is to communicate it to the player in a way he can better understand it. Many if not most of our kids play baseball, and start playing by about 5 years old. We practice football next to a baseball diamond, so this makes it real easy to demonstrate. To teach the kids the importance of alignment, I bring four baseball bases with me to practice and lay them out on the diamond early on in the season.
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Next I ask the kids to raise their hands if they played third base, and tell them to run out and get into their position as if it were a real baseball game. I do the same with short, second, catcher, the outfield and pitcher. Next I ask everyone what player is missing, they all of course reply, "first base."
I ask them all to get ready and make a play on the ball. I get a runner to run for me as I hit one of those soft rubbery baseballs to third base. Of course without a first baseman the player is safe. I then let them know that when we are missing a player in football it is just like playing baseball without a first baseman, we need 11 on the field every time.
Next I ask anyone left if they have ever played first base, then I send him to stand right next to our other third baseman. I then hit the ball to short and again of course the runner is safe. I ask the kids why is the runner safe? They reply, "Because the first baseman was out of position." I, of course, say that you are correct. That is just like in football when we have a player who does not get into the correct spot, when we don't align properly we have little chance at success.
Next I put the first baseman about 10 yards off of first base and again hit a grounder to third. My runner is safe again. This demonstrates that even if the first baseman is kind of in the right spot, if he isn't exactly in the right spot, there is little chance at success. We require perfection in alignment, it is a choice and it has to be precise.
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Lastly I whisper to the first baseman to cover second base when the ball is hit. This time he is in the right spot, BUT when I hit the ball to third base, there is no one there to cover since the first baseman is now covering second. I ask the kids, "What went wrong?" They reply, "He was supposed to cover first base instead of second." So even if you align correctly, if you don't do exactly what you are supposed to do once the play starts, it isn't going to turn out very well.
This is the exact same thing as our defensive tackle going to the B gap instead of C once the ball is snapped. I then demonstrate that exact same concept using my defensive tackles not coming in, aligning way wrong, aligning slightly wrong and then during the play filling the wrong gap.
When you are frustrated and blue in the face from trying to beat that same "assignment football" speech, using this little demo I thought of may make sense. We call it the "Cisar Assignment Baseball Demo."
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Dave Cisar has more than 15 years of hands-on experience as a youth football coach. His book "Winning Youth Football a Step by Step Plan" was endorsed by Tom Osborne and Dave Rimington. His DVDs and book have been used by teams in all 50 states and five foreign countries to run integrity-based programs that enhance every player's football experience and win championships. Dave has spoken at over 60 coaching clinics and is always a top-ranked speaker. His web site, WinningYouthFootball.com, is one of the top destinations on the internet for youth coaches.