There was a time when people wondered if Charlotte 49ers safety Ben DeLuca had what it took to play football.
As a high school freshman who stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 135 pounds, he was told he didn’t have the size or strength to play, yet he was on the field at game time.
That was five years ago. DeLuca’s now 6-2 and 192 pounds, but he still remembers those early days in high school – and the comments.
“No one ever really gave me a chance,” said DeLuca, a starter for the 49ers as a freshman. “I was always the underdog growing up. I was smaller and slower. I wasn’t big enough. And a lot of people didn’t believe I was fast enough or big enough to play in college.
“That’s one of my biggest motivating factors – people telling me that I wasn’t able to do it. It still motivates me today.”
DeLuca started his high school career at Orlando’s Lake Mary Prep, which shut down its football program after his freshman year. He and teammates Rayshad Lewis and Robert Cheathem transferred to Bishop Moore Catholic High.
“I was 5-8 when I went to Bishop Moore,” he said. “I had a few more growth spurts during the summers.”
By DeLuca’s junior year, he was 6-1 and 185 pounds. That season, in 2014, he had four interceptions (second best on the team behind Lewis’ seven picks) and a team-leading 103 tackles. The next season, DeLuca again led the team in tackles (127) and had four interceptions.
That put him on the college recruiters’ radar, with scholarship offers from Florida Atlantic, Coastal Carolina, Charleston Southern, Liberty and Charlotte. In fact, the 49ers signed DeLuca and Cheathem, who is redshirting this season.
Even then, DeLuca said he had doubters.
“A lot of people didn’t think my skill set would transition over to college,” he said. “People didn’t think I could have a big effect in the college game.”
‘Competition breeds success’
However, DeLuca said he knew he was ready for college, simply because of daily high school competition.
Two defensive secondary teammates at Bishop Moore were sons of former NFL players. Lewis’ father is Ray Lewis, a former Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker and 10-time All Pro. Fellow safety Bobby Spitulski’s father is former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bob Spitulski.
“We put a lot of players in college (from Bishop Moore),” DeLuca said. “Competition breeds success. Being around those players, I was really able to build off them.”
However, it was the elder Lewis who taught DeLuca a few off-the-field lessons about the game.
“Getting to be around Big Ray, he really taught me that no man should ever outwork you,” DeLuca said. “That’s always my goal – every time I step on the field, how can I outwork the next man? I’ll never be the best athlete on the field, but I know that one thing I can control is my effort and my attitude.
“That’s one thing I really try to work on, trying to outwork my next opponent or teammate. If I can outwork them, then that’s going to breed success because they’re going to want to compete with me, and we’re playing at a higher level.”
The college game
DeLuca’s effort has carried over to the 49ers, beginning with their summer workouts and practices leading up to the 2016 season.
At first, he didn’t know if he would be redshirted his freshman year; however, his goal was to play.
“Part of the reason I came here was I knew that coach (James) Adams (secondary coach), coach Wally (defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt) and coach (Brad) Lambert would give me the opportunity to play,” DeLuca said. “That’s all I’ve ever asked for.
“When I came in during the summer, getting to compete with the other players, getting to lift and run with them and compete in 7-on-7 (drills), I knew I was capable of playing at that level. I just wasn’t sure if I’d be given the opportunity.”
One thing that worked in DeLuca’s favor was the lack of depth at the safety position. Only one returnee, junior Markevis Davis, had seen playing time the previous season.
DeLuca quickly put any doubts to rest in the minds of Charlotte’s coaching staff.
“We try to redshirt as many freshmen as we can, just knowing that most come in not ready to go,” Adams said. “But we also try to get every freshman ready to play, ready to be the starter. In that process, he quickly rose to the top.
“We cracked the door open, but he kicked it off the hinges and hasn’t looked back.”
DeLuca has already had an impact in the secondary, even as a reserve.
In his second college game, against Elon on Sept. 10, DeLuca scooped up a fumble and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.
He cracked Charlotte’s starting lineup in the fifth game, against Conference USA rival Old Dominion on Oct. 1, and has stayed there since through performance and effort.
Entering Saturday’s C-USA game against Marshall in Huntington, W.Va., DeLuca has picked off passes in two straight games (against Florida Atlantic and Florida International), and had a team-best 14 tackles in the win against Florida Atlantic.
“We’ve felt really good since he’s gotten here,” Lambert said. “He’s got a real knack for playing back there, so he’s really earned that right to start. He’s been very productive, and that’s what you look for. He hasn’t made a lot of mistakes – he’s made some, but not a lot.
“He’s a very intelligent football player, and he’s got good athleticism. He’s come in, worked extremely hard and put himself in this position.”