WEST POINT — Sitting in an office in the center of the U.S. Military Academy campus in between classes, Jabari Laws is dressed like everyone else: in camouflage. The idea of this type of uniform, first implemented in the Napoleonic War in the early 1800s, is to disguise soldiers from being spotted by the enemy. Laws, ironically, did the opposite on Saturday, announcing his presence to his foe with jolting runs and a veteran-like resolve. It was a dream, he says now, still glowing from his first career start three days later, and he’s not ready to wake up.
When starting senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins sat out against the University of Texas at San Antonio with injury, opportunity came knocking for Laws. A 5-foot-9, 172-pound sophomore quarterback who lit up the state of Maryland in high school but hadn’t yet been handed the matchbox to the Army offense, Laws turned his nerves into kinetic energy and his doubts into belief. Though Hopkins is nearing full health, the Black Knights are comforted with the knowledge that there is not one, but two guys capable of commandeering the triple-option.
Laws met quarterbacks coach Mitch Ware outside the weight room on Thursday. That’s when the quarterback who wears No. 1 on his jersey received the news he’d be QB1 for the first time in his college career. He immediately slinked to the bathroom to call his mom and text his dad. There were tears.
On the sideline 48 hours later, Laws’ heart was racing. Teammates calmed him down before the first snap. “They made everything seem all right,” Laws said, “Like it’s another day at practice.”
It’s not every day at practice, however, that Laws rips off a 34-yard run down the sideline with helpless defenders trailing in his wake. That’s how his first play as a starting signal-caller played out. His initial possession lasted three plays, capped by a pitch to slotback Kell Walker.
On Tuesday, Walker replayed a question he’d been asked about Laws and then answered it himself.
“Did you see a little Ahmad (Bradshaw) or Kelvin in Jabari Laws? No, I saw Jabari Laws,” Walker said.
He would struggle, as most first-time starters do, throughout the second quarter and most of the third quarter. After a few possessions that ended in offensive miscues, slotback Artice Hobbs sat Laws down on the bench. Hobbs told Laws that anytime he felt overwhelmed by the moment, to just look at him. “Bro,” Hobbs said on the sideline, “even in the Michigan game I was calm.”
Hopkins, who was healthy enough to come in as an emergency option on Saturday if needed, advised his protegé, “Settle down. Slow down. Don’t try to overthink things. Be yourself out there.”
With the ball back in Laws’ hands at UTSA’s 41-yard line following a fumble recovery, he thought of the words Ware had said to him right before he trotted back out to the field: “Just be ready for anything.”
In a flash, Laws slithered through an opening in the defensive line and broke for daylight, streaking down the right sideline for the first touchdown of, potentially, many more to come.
“I guess I was ready,” Laws admits.
“I was turnt,” Hobbs said.
Also turnt were Laws’ former high school teammates. He picked up his phone postgame to a flood of messages. One, from a player who inspired him at Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., Wesley Wolfolk, sent a G.O.A.T. emoji with the text, “Keep doing you and you’re going to make big things happen.”
As it turns out, Wolfolk plays wide receiver for Morgan State, Army’s next opponent. He’s not the only one. Laws’ former teammate Ehidiame Akojie attends Morgan State, and said of his reaction to Laws’ game-changing bursts during UTSA, “Oh yeah, that’s ‘Bari.”
Izzy Akojie, an Army defensive back on the scout team who suited up with Laws at Wise, called the quarterback "pretty low-key." But in the state of Maryland, Izzy said, “Everybody knew who he was.” Morgan State defensive back Ahmari Benjamin, another part of the three-time state champion teams that Laws led, referred to Laws as a "laid-back, chill guy." But in the same breath, Benjamin said Laws is a “natural-born leader.”
Even head coach Jeff Monken couldn’t sense the pressure Laws felt in his first complete game. “He didn’t seem nervous,” Monken said.
Laws was nervous. But as the game progressed, those nerves faded and morphed into excitement. He was no longer a boy consumed in reverie. He was a man at work.
The future, both immediate and long-term, is not clearly laid out for Laws. He’s not pushing for Hopkins’ job, but should Hopkins rest during Morgan State, Laws would be able to show off his talents in front of a home crowd and perhaps provide a glimpse into 2020.
But even if Hopkins starts this week and Laws is forced to wait in the wings until next season, he will have this one game to cherish as a memento.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” Laws said. “It was definitely a dream come true.”