NORWALK — As far the Norwalk High football team is concerned, the future is now.
Injuries in positions where there was not a lot of depth has forced sixth-year coach Sean Ireland to re-tool his depth chart this season, and one of the things he’s done is placed two freshmen in the starting lineup.
Read that again: Two ninth-graders are playing varsity football on the same defense in the FCIAC.
Khalil Eason has started three games at defensive back for the Bears, while Izayah Valentine will be starting his second game at middle linebacker when Norwalk hosts Staples on Friday at 7 p.m.
“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had freshmen starting for us,” Ireland said.
Assistant coach Pete Tucci, who has been around the Norwalk program for 29 years, said its the first time he’s ever seen that during his tenure at Testa Field.
The fact that two freshmen have worked their way into the lineup is impressive in itself, but the fact that both are shining at their positions is even more eye-opening.
Eason has three interceptions already this season, including a pick-six return for a touchdown, while Valentine notched a sack for a safety during Norwalk’s 18-17 win over Trumbull.
“They’re that good,” Ireland said.
Eason assumed he’d be spending this fall playing with his friends on the freshman team.
“Coming into the season, I expected to be playing with my freshman friends, but after playing with these guys it feels like I’m a part of them now,” he said. “Now I’m on this team, I feel like I’m capable of playing at this level.”
Eason has certainly proved his worth on the field. His debut came two weeks into the season, and he notched an interception on one of the first balls thrown his way.
“He’s playing unbelievable,” Ireland said. “He’s definitely not intimidated at all. He competes and goes against guys bigger than him on a daily basis.”
Eason admitted to being a little nervous before his varsity debut against Westhill, but it wasn’t long before he felt at home playing against older players.
“After the first couple of plays I noticed it was just football, so I kept playing like I usually play,” Eason said.
During Norwalk’s bye week, the team found itself too thin at linebacker.
Ireland had heard from his freshman and JV coaches that Valentine might be somebody he wanted to look at more closely.
“We always knew he was good,” Ireland said. “You watch him and he just stands out. He’s been up with us and the timing of the bye week couldn’t have worked out better. He’s a lot more comfortable with our system now.”
Playing right in the middle of Norwalk’s defense means a lot of attention will be on him every game.
If last week’s win over Trumbull showed anything, though, it’s that Valentine isn’t in over his head.
In addition to his safety, the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder recorded seven tackles against the Eagles.
Valentine said the upperclassmen in the Norwalk program have made both him and Eason feel welcome, which has made them more comfortable on the field.
“They don’t look at us as freshmen,” Valentine said. “All they told me when I got up here was ‘Just try. Just do your best.’ ”
Like Eason, Valentine just had to shake off the first-game jitters.
“I was nervous because I was a freshman going up against varsity linemen, but after I got that first hit I just started thinking, ‘Stop being nervous,’ ” he said. “It’s football. Just play the way you know how and you’ll do good.”
Through just one game, the safety is the play that stands out.
“As of now, yeah,” Valentine said.
There are plenty of more games to come for both players, but right now at Norwalk High School the future is now.