This feature story on future NFL defensive end Jeff Charleston appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in November 2005.
RISING TO THE OCCASION
By Ed Odeven
If you ask Jeff Charleston to explain how he became a successful first-year starter on the Idaho State defense, he’ll give you a modest answer.
“It was pretty much having to come in and work every day,” Charleston said Wednesday.
If you ask coaches why he’s become one of Division I-AA’s most feared pass rushers, you’ll get a more detailed response.
“He is extremely fast,” said NAU coach Jerome Souers, whose team plays host to Idaho State Saturday at 3:05 p.m. at the Skydome. “He has a great feel for the game and he’s a tenacious player. … You’ve got to know where (he’s) at on the field at all times.”
But even if you know where Charleston is, he still makes plays. He is fourth in I-AA in sacks (11) and is one of 16 finalists for the 2005 Buck Buchanan Award, which is given annually to I-AA’s top defensive player.
Four times this season, Charleston has recorded two or more sacks, getting three against Eastern Washington and two apiece against Southern Utah, Montana State and Sacramento State. He has 51 tackles (25 solo stops) in nine games for the 5-4 Bengals.
This productivity doesn’t surprise Bengals coach Larry Lewis.
“The biggest thing is his relentless work ethic,” Lewis said. “He just never quits.”
One textbook example illustrated this point, a scene repeated week after week on the Pocatello, Idaho, campus.
After practice, “he’s just in the dome (working out) when we get done,” Lewis said. “He’s self-made. Nobody can outwork him (on this team). I’ve just seen very few kids work as hard as Jeff Charleston does.”
Charleston, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound senior defensive end, grew up on a 50-acre farm in Monmouth, Ore. It is there where he learned the value of hard work, while tending to cattle and sheep and bailing hay, and how much fun it is to play football.
“Every summer after you get done working, you look forward to football camp. It’s a lot easier than working in the field,” said Charleston.
Nobody’s ever said it’s easy to go up against 300-pound offensive linemen for four quarters. But Charleston makes it look easy.
“If you’re a tackle and you know he’s on the outside edge, you are going to have your hands full,” Souers said. “You’ve got to have great technique.”
NAU’s young offensive line — senior Jacob Wolfe at left tackle, two sophomores and two freshmen are slated to start Saturday — will be tested by Charleston and his linemates.
“As a game plan, we cannot be in a dropback, predictable (passing) situation,” Souers said. “That’s when he’s at his best.”
In 2004, Charleston transferred to Idaho State from Division II Western Oregon, a school in his hometown. He said he just wanted a change of scenery and a chance to play at a higher level.
Or as Lewis put it: “He really wanted a bigger challenge. Jeff had great goals ahead of him. He needs that challenge every day. He wants to prove that every day (he’s one of the best).”
Charleston had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
Which is why Charleston has made such a big splash on the I-AA scene this season.
This year, NFL scouts have started to pay big-time attention to Charleston.
“He was off the radar a year ago,” Lewis said.
“They said, ‘We haven’t seen this kid. We don’t have video on him,'” Lewis said, recounting conversations he’s had this season.
“He’s gone from a kid whose gone from nothing to ‘oh, man we better go see this kid,'” Lewis added.
And in the process Charleston has drawn comparisons to ex-Bengal sack maestro Jared Allen, who won the 2003 Buck Buchanan Award as a college senior. He’s in his second season with the Kansas City Chiefs and leads the team with five sacks through Sunday.
Now as his college career winds down — the Bengals have two remaining games — Charleston has his sights set on a career in the NFL. Yet he still looks back on his college career with fond memories.
“Just being able to play on Saturdays is a big thrill,” he said.