FLORENCE — Caleb Massey was at a crossroad in his football career during the 2011 season.
Frustrated over a lack of playing time and a position change, Massey was very unhappy in his first season at North Alabama. The Sulligent native had transferred from Troy in hopes of a fresh start, but instead he was ready to give up the sport.
“I really thought about giving up football and I was pretty much ready to do it,” Massey said. “I was probably 80 percent sure I was going to turn in the cleats.
“But my family kept believing in me and wouldn’t let me quit. They told me to stick it out and keep believing in myself, so that’s what I did.”
Sticking it out has proven to be a wise decision for Massey. A seldom-used reserve in 2011, Massey has emerged as the leader of the defense this season from his strong safety spot.
Massey is tied for the Gulf South Conference lead with four interceptions and ranks second in the conference behind teammate Tavarius Wilson in tackles with 56 entering Saturday’s home game against Valdosta State.
That’s quite a change from 2011 when Massey saw action in seven games and finished with season with 14 total tackles.
“The whole year things were not going my way last year,” he said. “I started to question whether the sport was really for me.”
Massey had signed with Troy after a standout career at Sulligent High School. In addition to being an all-state football player, Massey was a three-time All-State pick in basketball and had an offer to play basketball at UAB.
After two years at Troy, Massey said he needed a change and transferred to UNA.
Defensive coordinator Chris Willis was Massey’s position coach last season. Willis said there was never any question that Massey had talent, but it was a case of having outstanding depth at safety.
“We had Rod Woodson, Bryan Thomas and Lucas Darr, all who had been here the year before,” Willis said. “Caleb was just the No. 4 safety by default. We moved him to linebacker and he played a little, but never really got in the rotation.
“Caleb also had some family issues he was dealing with. He didn’t have the greatest attitude, but we didn’t really know everything that was going on with him.”
When Terry Bowden resigned and Bobby Wallace was hired as head coach, Massey said he felt like he had a clean slate. He played so well during spring practice that the coaching staff made the decision to move Woodson to linebacker.
“I liked the discipline Coach Wallace brought and the way he talked, so I stuck it out,” Massey said. “It was like a breath of fresh air.
“Last year there were a lot of things that went wrong within the program, but things like that happen. It was just a matter of accepting the new coaches and luckily I adapted to it. They gave me a chance to show what I could do and I got on the field.”
Massey and Nick Williams were expected to give the Lions an outstanding combination at the two safety spots this year. When Williams was lost for the season with a knee injury during preseason practice, Massey knew he had to step up his game.
He has done just that, forcing or getting a turnover in every game this season. His 93-yard interception return for a touchdown last week completely turned the game around for the Lions.
“I just try to be around the ball and make plays,” he said. “I used to play quarterback, so I sort of know what they are thinking and that helps me be in the right spots. Our coaches always say that if you go full speed and you’re around the ball good things will happen.”
Willis said there is an obviously difference in Massey this year.
“I think hanging out with Nick Williams really helped Caleb, as did getting a fresh start with Coach Wallace,” Willis said. “With Rod and Nick out, Caleb has stepped up as our top player and a leader. He’s a totally different person this year.”
Massey agrees that he is a different person this year. After struggling to find a home for several years he is finally happy.
“In the past few years I dreaded going to practice,” he said. “Now I go to practice every day with a smile on my face.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.