ETSU's Sensabaugh enters sophomore season as highly-touted defensive back

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- The door opened for Gerald Sensabaugh to step into the starting lineup on the East Tennessee State football team last season after an injury to Ocasio Cofield. That led to a window of opportunity as far as being a success.
   Sensabaugh, now a sophomore, is now regarded as one of the best strong safeties in the Southern Conference. He was recently named an All-SoCon second-team pick on the conference's all-preseason team.
   Sensabaugh came to ETSU last year as a true freshman after a stellar career at Dobyns-Bennett. Cofield suffered a career-ending injury earlier in the year, which opened the door for Sensabaugh.
   According to ETSU head football coach Paul Hamilton, Sensabaugh didn't disappoint.
   "I feel like Gerald was a surprise from day one to us," Hamilton said. "He grew about two inches it seemed like after high school. I think the thing that happened for Gerald is that he was a guy that worked hard before he came in.
   "From day one when we started coaching him we thought he had a chance to contribute. As it turned out losing Ocasio he ended up being thrown into the fire quicker than we thought. I think he got better and better and gained confidence. The thing I like about Gerald is I think he's a guy that when he's on the field, his presence is seen. He makes plays, and he's around the football. And I really feel as it turned out, Gerald probably ended up being a guy that Ocasio might have had a tough time beating out."
   It was definitely an unexpected year for Sensabaugh, but he knew he was needed to fill in and make plays.
   "It was just a misfortunate injury to Ocasio," Sensabaugh said. "That just gave me the opportunity to play. I just sat back. Ocasio was the veteran. He gave me tips playing the game. He helped me out a lot the whole season. I just credit him for a lot of my success, and the coaches giving me the opportunity to play. Ocasio taught me a lot. Hopefully, I can teach these younger folks and we can go on and win the championship."
   Sensabaugh finished last year with 40 unassisted tackles and two interceptions. He caught the eye of the SoCon coaches, and he ended up getting the preseason honor.
   The All-SoCon pick surprised Sensabaugh.
   "I don't know where all that came from," Sensabaugh said. "I was surprised. My mom told me, and she was all happy. I didn't know what to think. But it's an honor. I'm glad the coaches feel I'm the second best strong safety in the conference. I feel good about it I guess. I've just got to live up to it."
   Sensabaugh made his presence known in one of school's all-time greatest wins last season. Against No. 1 ranked Georgia Southern, Sensabaugh's interception clinched a 19-16 upset win.
   It was definitely the highlight of Sensabaugh's athletic career.
   "That game just marked history I guess," Sensabaugh said. "We beat the No. 1 ranked team. I felt really good after that win. The whole week coach (Jeff) Farrington, who was a coach last year, promised us we were going to win this game. The coaches had the perfect scheme for that game. It was no one person, we all played as a team with a perfect scheme. That's what helped us get over the top to win that game right there."
   It was definitely a magical season for Sensabaugh, but he wasn't satisfied with his performance. Sensabaugh thought he could do better, so he went into the weight room to make himself bigger.
   Sensabaugh expects bigger things in 2002.
   "Hopefully, I'll do better," Sensabaugh said. "I feel like I didn't do too good last season, especially with cut blocks. I hadn't seen it coming out of high school. A lot of the time I would get cut block, and I would be on the ground. I'm learning, and hopefully next year I'll try hard to practice on stuff like that."
   Sensabaugh was a standout football and basketball player on some highly successful Dobyns-Bennett teams. While in Kingsport, Sensabaugh played football for the legendary Graham Clark.
   Sensabaugh enjoyed playing for Clark, and also likes playing for Hamilton.
   "There's not much of a difference," Sensabaugh said. "Both coaches push me to my limits. They're trying to get me to best level I can be at. Obviously, coach Clark pushed me to where I could play college football, and I came out somewhat successful. It seems like coach Hamilton is doing the same thing. He's just taking it to another level. And I'm just learning right now."
   Sensabaugh not only has high expectations for himself, but also for the team. The goals this year are lofty ones.
   But at the same time, they're not letting things like being ranked No. 8 in the nation in Street and Smith's magazine get to their heads.
   "We're staying kind of humble with it," Sensabaugh said. "We see how they feel about us, and we're going to go out there and prove that we should be ranked that high, even higher. Hopefully, we're going to go on and win the national championship. That's our goal, especially to win the SoCon. That's the first goal, then win the national championship."
   With the expectations so high not only for the team, but also for Sensabaugh, he knew he had to work hard this summer.
   Sensabaugh and his teammates have responded.
   "I've been lifting weights a lot," Sensabaugh said. "I've been running with coach (Lee) Morrow, our strength and conditioning coach. He heads up our running, and has been getting us in shape for the season.
   "What's really good about this team is that we're becoming more of a family this year. Everybody's been doing passing without any of the coaches. It's been a fun summer. We've been doing a pre-practice during the summer. That's been pretty fun. Even some of the incoming freshmen came in and did it with us. It just helps our team get over the top."
   With Sensabaugh's talent, it wouldn't be a shock if he could play professionally one day.
   But right now, all Sensabaugh is thinking about is getting that diploma.
   "It's a dream," Sensabaugh said. "I'll leave it at that. Playing professionally is a dream. My No. 1 goal at ETSU is to get a degree. The NFL is just a dream for me. If it comes, it just comes. But it's not the main thing I'm looking for. I just want to get a degree. But if it comes I'll hopefully take the opportunity and run with it."