STORRS, Conn. (AP) — D.J. Shoemate and Johnny McEntee have crossed the United States to fulfill the football dream they shared with each other when they were children in southern California.
The two are expected to get a chance to play in college together for the first time Thursday as teammates at Connecticut, eight years after meeting on an eighth-grade visit to check out the football program at Servite High School in Anaheim.
“I came there and I had about a 13-inch Afro,” said Shoemate, rubbing his now-shaved head. “I was playing around kicking…and I kicked a 50-yard punt or PAT or something and caught the eye of Johnny and his father.
“And ever since then, we’ve become really, really close.”
Shoemate became a wide receiver and running back at Servite and McEntee became his quarterback. By their senior year, they were starters, dreaming of one day playing together in a bowl game.
But Shoemate was an All-American, and McEntee didn’t get much attention from big-time college football programs.
“He went to USC and I was like, OK I could never go there, I’ll be lucky if I play in college,” McEntee said this week. “And then, how we ended up here is just kind of a little miracle.”
McEntee arrived first, accepting Randy Edsall’s offer in 2008 to become a walk-on. Shoemate, meanwhile, spent two years at Southern California as a backup fullback and receiver. But he never got the chance to compete for the job he really wanted — tailback.
When the NCAA leveled sanctions against the Trojans and allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year, McEntee gave his friend a call and convinced him to come east.
Shoemate had already seen UConn play. He had traveled with McEntee’s family during a USC bye week in 2009 and watched the Huskies beat Notre Dame, perhaps the biggest win in the program’s history.
Edsall sealed the deal by promising to give Shoemate a chance to play tailback in 2010. But in the season opener at Michigan, Shoemate turned the ball over near the goal line and landed in the coach’s doghouse.
He spent the rest of the season behind Jordan Todman and Robby Frey, carrying the ball just 28 times for 115 yards.
McEntee, meanwhile, became more famous for posting a trick-shot video on YouTube then for throwing passes on the field. He was well down on the depth chart, and played in just one game, getting some mop-up duty against Temple.
Their opportunity came after Edsall bolted for Maryland in January. Paul Pasqualoni took over as UConn’s coach and opened up the competition at both positions.
Shoemate was quick to impress.
“My first impression when I saw him was that he passed the look test,” Pasqualoni said. “We had some discussions in the spring and I thought that D.J. went through the spring and had a very focused spring on the details that are required to play the position. And the number-one detail is taking care of the football.”
He slid into the tailback void left when Todman entered the NFL draft after his junior year, and will start on Thursday.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while. I’ve sacrificed a lot to get to where I am at this point,” Shoemate said, “and I’m giving it my all.”
McEntee, also made the most of the competition at quarterback. He’s one of three players being considered for the start Thursday and the coaches have said they are impressed with his poise and accuracy.
“He’s never really got a chance to prove that he can play or not,” said George DeLeone, UConn’s new offensive coordinator. “In our situation, he’s been given a tremendous amount of opportunity to play, and he’s done some good things.”
McEntee said an opportunity is all or Shoemate ever wanted, they just never expected it to come in Connecticut. Now, the talk of playing together in a bowl game doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
“It’s a big possibility,” he said. “I’ve just got to really establish myself as a person who can play on this team and stay in the running.”