Chaney commands the Eagles defense

"When I'm in the huddle talking . . . everybody needs to listen," says Jamar Chaney, here after the win over the Cowboys.
"When I'm in the huddle talking . . . everybody needs to listen," says Jamar Chaney, here after the win over the Cowboys. (MATT SLOCUM / Associated Press)
Posted: November 13, 2011

Cullen Jenkins and Asante Samuel have the championship rings. Trent Cole and Jason Babin have Pro Bowls. Nnamdi Asomugha has the prestige. But on the Eagles defense, Jamar Chaney has the huddle.

As his play has improved in recent weeks, the second-year linebacker has taken increasing command of the Eagles defense.

For Chaney, a seventh-round pick who grew up in Florida idolizing University of Miami legend Ray Lewis, the role of defensive leader has come surprisingly soon, but it's a job he welcomes.

"It's something you dream of," said Chaney, who will make his 12th career start Sunday. "It's crazy how fast it done came."

At middle linebacker, Chaney is the nerve center of the defense. He inherited the position late last season from Stewart Bradley, now with the Arizona Cardinals, who visit Philadelphia on Sunday.

With a low, rumbling voice and Southern drawl as thick as syrup, Chaney organizes the huddle, relays signals from the sidelines, and calls adjustments before the snap. But the job extends beyond Sundays. During walk-throughs and practices he is charged with maintaining the defensive tempo and focus. Teammates say he'll call for attention, stomp into the center of the defensive circle, or growl at a lagging Eagle to "get his ass into the huddle," regardless of star status.

"It feels like he's been here four or five years the way he's yelling at older guys," said rookie linebacker Brian Rolle.

"He's the captain," Cole said.

"If 10 people get the call and one person runs the wrong thing, it comes back to the signal-caller," said Chaney, a three-year captain in both high school and college. "That's one thing I try to enforce. When I'm in the huddle talking and when I'm trying to say something, everybody needs to listen."

There are also messages aside from play calls. Coaches have urged Chaney to watch his body language. No waving his arms in frustration. No hands on his hips when he's tired. Nothing that projects weakness.

"There's a certain style, a certain swagger, there's a certain: Here it is, this is the Philadelphia Eagles defense, and there's a certain way to present that," said defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

Middle linebackers typically take on leadership roles, but on a defense with high-gloss names, a young seventh-round pick barking orders might seem strange. And with the D struggling, particularly in critical late-game situations, the job is steeped in pressure.

Chaney welcomes it.

"Why not me? Why would I want it to be on somebody else? I want that to be on me because I know how hard I work," he said. "I'll put my work ethic against anybody."

His focus on effort and defying expectations developed as the only man in a single-family home, under a tough high school coach, and through snubs that have followed his career.

Growing up in Fort Pierce, a coastal Florida city about 130 miles north of Miami, Chaney lived with his mother and three sisters. His father was a presence from afar, Chaney said, but as his mother and one older sister worked to support the family, he watched after his younger sisters, even cooking sometimes, he said.

During the week he'd travel 20 minutes to St. Lucie West Centennial High School in Port St. Lucie, where defensive coordinator Ron Parker preached one core message: get after the opponent.

Chaney played so well he earned multiple scholarship offers and committed to Georgia. But when the Educational Testing Service accused him of cheating on his SAT, most schools walked away. (Chaney denied the charge.)

He was left to fall back on Mississippi State. His first impression was that the school was too "country." But Chaney quickly fit in, playing 11 games as a freshman, then becoming a starter and leader. In the first game of his senior year, however, another defender whipped into his left leg, breaking his fibula and tearing ankle ligaments.

With his season over, teammates took turns wearing his number 22 jersey in the next several games.

Chaney got a medical redshirt and returned to impress in his final college season. Expecting to go early in the draft - he hoped for the second round, but thought fourth at the latest - Chaney watched names crawl by on his TV until the seventh and final round.

"The draft, for me, it wasn't a good experience," he said.

Disappointed, he talked to his high school coach.

"You're not entitled to anything," Parker remembers saying. "You have to earn it."

The Eagles debated taking Chaney in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds, said general manager Howie Roseman, but each time picked someone else. In the middle of the seventh, the team dealt a sixth-round pick in 2011 for the chance to grab Chaney.

His speed and athleticism were enticing, but so was his perseverance, a trait he has needed in each of his two seasons with the Eagles.

"He's a guy that lives and breathes football," Roseman said.

Scouts, though, questioned Chaney's ability to fight off blocks, and his demeanor didn't fit the image of a fiery middle linebacker.

Chaney often wears a sullen, distant expression that masks an affable nature and, according to fellow linebackers, a boisterous side.

"He's going to battle to the end with Mississippi State or a school from the SEC," said linebacker Keenan Clayton.

Rolle does a Chaney impersonation, growling out "Mississippi Stayy-ut," Chaney's favorite topic of conversation.

"He's actually a funny dude," said linebacker Moise Fokou. "You know those Southern boys have all the sayings in the world."

Chaney's Twitter feed reflects none of this. It's a stream of religious messages, Bulldog boosterism, and notes about film study, workouts, and college and pro football.

"The only time I don't like watching football is when we lose," he said.

He even chastised his old high school team on Twitter last week for falling to a huge rival. As with Mississippi State, Chaney still feels devotion to his high school, which retired his number during the offseason.

During the Eagles' bye week, he returned to watch a game and speak to the football team.

"You've got to go out there and earn it," Chaney told the team, according to Parker, now the head coach. "You've got to take it, you've got to work hard for it, and that's his personality."

When Bradley got hurt, Chaney showed potential in three starts to finish 2010. Bradley was allowed to leave in free agency. But instead of arriving at training camp this year as the defensive signal-caller, Chaney was moved to strong-side linebacker, where coaches thought his speed could help stop tight ends.

"He wasn't too happy about it, but being a team player he took it and embraced it," Rolle said.

Chaney soon returned to middle linebacker, though, replacing Casey Matthews after two games. He had to learn on the fly as he adapted to the new Eagles scheme.

An interception against Buffalo showed progress and built confidence, and his play kept improving in wins over the Redskins and Cowboys, though the defense slipped against the Bears.

"Playing with veterans, what happens is he has to prove himself to them," Castillo said. "Part of that is so that he can feel comfortable because he has to tell those guys what to do and get on their butts."

"You've got to lead by example first," Chaney said. "Once your teammates see how hard you work, then once you get put in that leader position everything else is going to take care of itself."

Chaney, rejected by his choice colleges, passed over in the draft, and pushed out of his preferred position by his own team, said he might have preferred a smoother road, but wouldn't change the outcome so far.

"I'm far from where I want to be," Chaney said. "and this team is far away from where we want to be at."

 That's true in the standings. On the depth chart and in the huddle, though, he feels right at home.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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