Naples High defensive coordinator Sam Dollar walked into school Monday ready to get to work.
Dollar was ready to break down Miami Central's bruising rushing attack with his players and prepare them for Friday's opponent in the Class 6A state semifinals. What the coach found was his defensive captain was well ahead of him.
A student of the game who devotes as much time to the cerebral aspects of football as the physical ones, Golden Eagles linebacker Brian Donnelly didn't take time to celebrate last week's regional championship. Instead Donnelly spent his days off studying Miami Central as much as his coaches.
"He walks in the door (Monday) and says he's already watched hours of film," Dollar said with amazement. "He watched like four games of Central's over the weekend."
Only a junior, Donnelly already developed into one of the top tacklers in Naples history. While he trains his body hard for Friday nights, it's his mental preparation that makes the difference.
It's cliché to refer to a mature team leader as a coach on the field. The phrase certainly describes Donnelly, but he's also like a coach off the field.
This past weekend wasn't unique. Donnelly spends much of his free time looking at video of his opponents. He puts in the same long hours of study no matter the opponent — coaches say he prepared just as hard for winless nondistrict opponent Bishop Verot as he did for powerful Daytona Beach-Mainland in last week's regional final.
"I don't think I've ever had a defensive player that has his combination of the three Ps — preparation, passion and performance," Naples head coach Bill Kramer said. "We've had some great players throughout the years, but he's on another level."
Donnelly got serious about football as a sophomore. When he was called up to the varsity that season, he realized the sport he loves could be his path to college.
That's when he started attacking game film like he does an opposing fullback. To get better, Donnelly knew he could have to do more than the physical work every other player in the state is also doing.
At barely 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Donnelly isn't particularly imposing on the field. To become one of the best defenders in the area, he started using his head more than his arms and legs.
"I know I'm not the fastest guy, I'm not the strongest guy," Donnelly said. "I make up for that with preparation. I know what the other team likes to do and I'll stop them."
Donnelly has earned the respect of his teammates with his focus and his knowledge. As a junior he's emerged as not only a leader, but the driving force behind a defense that has given up less than 13 points a game this season.
"He's a savvy football player," senior defensive end Pat Goodall said. "He's a great leader. He's very forceful in what he says. He makes sure everyone is getting their stuff done and doing it right."
By watching so much film, Donnelly has developed the ability to see a play almost before it unfolds. By picking up on an offense's tendencies and cues, he is able to be around the ball on almost every play.
This season Donnelly leads Naples with 133 tackles with at least one game left. He's also second with five sacks and leads the team in forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and quarterback hurries.
Donnelly was second on the team last year with 92 tackles as a sophomore. He's already second in career tackles on the Golden Eagles' all-time list.
"He's very intelligent and he has a lot of natural instinct," Dollar said. "He reads the offensive linemen and the way they're blocking and figures out where the ball's going to be, and he hits the hole."
While the dream of playing college football drives him (he's been contacted by Nebraska and Missouri but has no official offers), Donnelly wants to be successful just as much for his teammates as himself.
To Dollar, it's obvious Donnelly loves his teammates and he works hard so he won't let them down.
"I'd do anything for this team. I'd do anything to be a success," Donnelly said. "We want to be a state championship defense. That's the goal and we're working toward it every day."
For Donnelly, that means even weekends.