DURHAM — The first thing coach Sean McDonnell noticed about recruit Pop Lacey was the confidence.

“He’s really, really engaged in all that’s going on,” he said. “It didn’t matter if he came in here as the No. 3 or No. 4 free safety, he wanted to start. He wanted to play.”

It didn’t take Lacey long to get on the field. He played in the opener at San Diego State, and was pressed into action early the following week against Holy Cross because of an injury.

He finished with a game-high 14 tackles and was named CAA rookie of the week after the University of New Hampshire football team’s come-from-behind, 39-28 victory over the Crusaders.

“It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “My teammates looked to me to step up.”

Lacey has started the last two games and is expected to make his third straight start Saturday (3:30 p.m.) when the Wildcats host No. 19/17 William & Mary at Wildcat Stadium.

The true freshman with a nickname he received shortly after birth and still goes by to this day has made a name for himself in the first four games of his college career.

“I came with the intention of hoping to play,” Lacey said, “but the first week was mind-boggling. My head was exploding with football.”

Through four games he leads the team in solo tackles with 21 and ranks second in total tackles with 25. He also forced a fumble in last week’s 39-17 win at Rhode Island in the Wildcats’ CAA opener.

“Having my teammates show confidence in me has been a big confidence-booster for myself because when other people trust you it means you’re doing something right,” said Lacey, who is from Reading, Pa. “You can be put on the field at any time. For me it’s been an exciting rollercoaster.”

“The thing I love about Pop if he makes a mistake he makes it going 95 miles an hour,” McDonnell said. “He doesn’t hesitate. He goes. Even when he makes a mistake he makes good plays. We appreciate that about him.”

Lacey’s timing was good. Safety was a position of need for the Wildcats, who graduated three starting safeties and one corner from last year’s club, leaving senior corner and co-captain Casey DeAndrade as the only defensive back with much experience.

“We knew we were going to have to play one of the young safeties early because of depth,” McDonnell said. “He just took the ball and ran with it.”

It helped that Lacey spent a year at the Kent School where he was able to get faster and stronger. It was a benefit athletically and academically as he prepared for the next level.

“We were scrimmaging halfway through camp and I was running with the ones and I was handling my own,” he said. “That’s when I kind of knew I could play in the CAA and I could play at New Hampshire.”

Lacey and the Wildcats (2-2, 1-0 CAA) will be tested Saturday against nemesis William & Mary (2-2, 0-1 CAA). UNH is 4-15 all-time against the Tribe, although the Wildcats have won two of the last four meetings, both at home.

“Defensively over the years they’ve manhandled us,” McDonnell said. “They’ve owned us defensively.”

UNH scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Rhode Island last week while William & Mary was self-destructing in a 27-10 loss at home to Elon.

The Tribe were hurt by three interceptions and a pair of special teams’ miscues.

“Right now I think we’re still trying to find ourselves,” said junior running back Trevon Bryant. “We’ve definitely showed a lot of potential to be a good team.”

The Wildcats are trying to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.

“They want to get back and show people we’re a good football team,” McDonnell said. “They’ve got a feeling that nobody thinks we’re any good.”