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Blazing a trail

Greg Irvin rolled into Demopolis earlier this week, just hours removed from finishing the last final exam of his first semester of college. The former Demopolis High School middle linebacker was aiming to walk on at UAB last February before phone call shortly after sunrise guaranteed him a scholarship to play for the Blazers. He wasted no time in accepting.

“It was a blessing I even got the phone call,” Irvin, who ended up starting five games at weakside linebacker for the Blazers during his freshman campaign said, reflecting on National Signing Day some 10 months ago. “It was a blessing I even received the scholarship. And to be starting? I knew I was going to work. But I wasn’t really their guy.”

Like many who have gone before him, Irvin found his share of obstacles while making the transition from Class 5A All-State linebacker his senior year to an unknown freshman less than 12 months later. The UAB coaching staff was unsure of where Irvin, only 5-10, would fit into its defensive scheme. When the former Tiger standout left Demopolis during the offseason, he expected that he would work hard and find himself a spot on the special teams unit.

He met both of those expectations early, lining up along the Legion Field turf to cover the Blazers’ first kick of the year.

“It was amazing,” Irvin said of what he felt as he looked up at green and gold clad crowd. “It first hit me that I was playing D-I football in practice (earlier that week.) I looked down at my green jersey and saw No. 46 and realized, ‘I’m really playing football.’”

Irvin compared the sense of accomplishment he felt during that moment to what he experienced by receiving his high school diploma.

“It felt like graduating,” the ever-confident Irvin said from a chair just on the other side of his former high school coach’s desk. Although Demopolis head coach Tom Causey’s new office was not completed when Irvin was enrolled at the high school several months earlier, the Blazer freshman felt perfectly at home there. He considers Causey like family. In fact, Causey was one of the individuals to whom he turned just weeks earlier when he found himself drowning in the obligatory struggles of freshman year.

“The fourth game of the season, I was wondering why I was there,” Irvin said. He stood on the sideline at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, awaiting his chance to line up. The coaches told him they would try to get him on the field that day. But four quarters and a 37-point Texas A&M romp later, Irvin was getting back on a plane and heading for Birmingham, his uniform as pristine as ever.

“It was real hard because I’m used to leading and not following,” Irvin said of the most trying time in his football life to this point. “I got to talking to Coach Causey and my mom and talking to different people who have been there before.”

Through those conversations, Irvin remembered the attitude and determination that had landed him an opportunity to sign with the Blazers in the first place. Then, Irvin made the determination to do what he’d done so many times before; make an impression.

“I had been in Demopolis and knew that I was representing Demopolis and wanted to open the door for those guys,” Irvin said, referring to Demopolis players who may potentially find themselves with a similar opportunity.

Irvin’s patience and determination were rewarded on Oct. 24 when he took the field in Huntington, W. Va. for the first start of his collegiate career.

“(The coaches) told me a game before I needed to start learning the (middle linebacker) position and then I started learning the (strong side) position,” Irvin said. That week, Irvin spent practice time with the first team, second team and special teams units before getting the start at weakside linebacker against Marshall.

“I was in there then,” Irvin said. “They knew I had speed, so they designed a blitz for me.”

Irvin played in 11 of the Blazers’ 12 games on the season, getting the starting nod in five. His freshman campaign saw him record 16 total tackles, including 2.5 for a loss. But it is the things that will never be reflected in record books that make the 210-pounder feel confident about his first year.

“I really am (better for the struggles),” he said. “You’ve just got to earn it. They ain’t gonna give it to you.”

Now, with his first year behind him, Irvin is relishing the opportunity to impart his experiences to former Demopolis teammates who have their sights set on playing college football.

“I feel like I’ve been through the battle,” Irvin said. “I can share my experience with my brothers back home and let them know hard work will get you there and what you do when you get there will be what keeps you there.”