Jacob Mueller

Senior linebacker Jacob Mueller (33) has a team-high 91 tackles for UMHB, which plays for the national title tonight vs. North Central.

CANTON, Ohio — Jacob Mueller isn’t the most ferocious-looking guy on Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense. In fact, he’s somewhat light for a linebacker. And yet, there’s his name at the top of the stat sheet as the Crusaders’ leading tackler this season.

Opponents who overlook him do so at their own risk.

“I think I surprise some people. When you think of a linebacker, you think of someone bigger than me,” the 6-foot, 200-pound senior said. “The speed that I play with is an advantage for me, though. And I’ll go hit you in your mouth, too. It helps to be an athlete.”

There’s no questioning the athleticism of Mueller, who has been a consistent contributor going all the way back to his sophomore season as part of the Crusaders’ 2018 national championship team and has continued to develop. He has a team-leading 91 tackles this season — including 15 behind the line of scrimmage — heading into tonight when No. 2 UMHB (14-0) battles No. 1 North Central in the Stagg Bowl at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium to determine the NCAA Division III champion.

And he’s done it all rather quietly, without receiving some of the accolades that have gone to his teammates.

“He does get overlooked sometimes. He’s not a showy guy, but he’s a tough, hard-nosed, great player,” Crusaders head coach Pete Fredenburg said. “It took us a while to get him to realize everything he can do, but we knew it was worth it because he plays so hard.

“He’s been very easy to coach. He studies the game and loves to play.”

In Mueller’s mind, the statistics mean very little. His only priority is to help add to UMHB’s win total.

“I try not to worry about the stats and everything. What matters at the end of everything is winning the national championship,” he said. “It’s fun to get the accolades, but winning the championship means everything. I remember winning it in 2018, and it’s kind of a life-changing experience. It’s something you’ll talk about forever.

“Getting the accolades is fun, but getting to celebrate with your teammates after winning it all is more fun.”

Mueller’s progression can be easily tracked after his freshman season with the junior varsity. He appeared in all 15 games and totaled 14 tackles as a sophomore in 2018, was in on 62 stops the following year and 35 during last spring’s five-game campaign before rising to the top of the chart with this season’s 91-and-counting.

He’s the first to admit that he’s a much better player now than when he arrived on the UMHB campus.

“One thing I think I’ve done throughout all of my time playing football — from seventh grade to being a senior in college — is that each year, I seem to get better. Gaining knowledge and experience each year has helped me be better the next year,” he said. “I’m not only a more mature person now, but I’m a completely different football player than I was when I got to college.”

Because the pandemic forced the 2020 fall season to be canceled, the NCAA granted all players an extra year of eligibility, and Mueller was thankful for one more season. He knows this is his last go-round with the Crusaders, meaning tonight’s Stagg Bowl will be his final chance to play football. He wants to soak it all in, but that can be a difficult thing to do while preparing and staying focused on the task at hand — winning a national championship.

“After Tuesday’s practice before we flew here, I remember thinking that it was the last time I would ever practice or play at Crusader Stadium,” he said. “It’s kind of a surreal situation. You never really feel the importance of something like that until it’s over. It all goes by so fast. I remember as a freshman thinking, ‘I have four years of doing this.’ It seemed like a long time then, but it really does go by fast. People say that all the time, but it really does.

“My career hasn’t been anything like I thought it would be. It has been so much better. I wouldn’t change anything about playing at UMHB. The people I’ve met and the person I’ve become, I’m thankful every day for the opportunity that I’ve had.”