7 August 2011

Nigeria: Ukandu Living up to His Name


IN African Igbo dialect the name "Azubuike" means "has much strength." It's a fitting description of Towson defensive tackle Azubuike Ukandu, who was dubbed by his Nigerian-born father in hopes that his son would live up to the moniker.

"When I was very young [my father] told me what my name meant," Ukandu said. "It was an honor, but it was also a little bit of pressure. I felt like I had to live up to it; I wanted to represent it well."

So far, so good.

Ukandu is a terror at defensive tackle

Ukandu has grown into a 6-foot-2, 280-pound mammoth of a man with the might to match his mass. His 360-pound bench press, 470-pound squat and 525-pound deadlift top the charts at Towson.

"It's pretty impressive watching him lift," said Ukandu's cousin, Eric, who plays defensive back for Towson. "We have other big guys, but he's definitely the strongest. He's just a big, strong dude."

Ukandu's pure power has impressed his teammates, but his girth alone has the students turning their heads. At Towson, a small class-2A school that isn't exactly teeming with big-boned kids, Ukandu dwarfs his fellow classmates. When strolling the hallways, he turns three-lane highways into one-way side streets.

"He's impossible to miss," said Towson coach Scott Mathena. "If you're walking around you're bound to run into him at some point."

Strength and size alone do not define a football player, however. Which is why Ukandu would much rather talk about his Friday night exploits, where, for the last two years, he's turned the football field into a literal "stomping" ground.

He is considered the top public-school defensive tackle in Baltimore and one of the best in the entire state, according to scouts. At a recent Nike SPARQ combine, analyst Michael White called him "an ideal fit to plug the middle [of a defense]."

Mathena agreed.

"Anything in the middle he pretty much owns; he shuts the door," the coach said. "No one gets any yards running up the middle against us. He's extremely strong, he has great lateral movement and he explodes off the ball. He gave teams a whole lot of trouble last year."

About the only thing more difficult then blocking Ukandu is pronouncing his name. When yours truly dialed the big man's cell, Ukandu couldn't help but chuckle at the reporter's butchery.

Reporter: "Hello, is Ah-za-bweek You-can-do there?"

Ukandu: "OK, I'll help you out - it's Az-a-boo-kee Ooh-ka-doo."

Reporter: "Ah-za ? OK, I give up (laughs). Can I just call you 'Az?'"

Azubuike Ukandu is not a familiar name now, but local fans, players and writers will know it soon enough. With several scholarship offers already in his pocket, he's destined to play on Saturdays.

That didn't seem possible just three years ago.

Before high school, Ukandu had never strapped on a helmet or a pair of pads, mainly because he weighed too much for the rec teams. He did dabble in a bit of backyard basketball and touch football, but nothing organized.

But evidently he must have learned something substantial. By the time he reached ninth grade Ukandu was one of the best linemen at Towson. The coaches kept him down on jayvee that year to hone his fundamentals, but it was clear the kid could play.

Mathena, who was a jayvee coach at Hereford at the time, got his first glimpse of Ukandu that year when Hereford's junior varsity played Towson's. Although the Bulls dominated the game, Ukandu sure gave Mathena's kids some problems.

"He stood out even then," Mathena said. "You could tell he was a a little raw and undisciplined, but you could see that explosiveness right away. You knew with a little coaching he'd be special."

Little did Mathena know, he'd be the one doing the coaching. After the 2008 season ended Mathena jumped at the chance to take over for then-Towson coach Harry McNeir. After reviewing his new personnel, he promptly stuck Ukandu on the varsity defensive line.

The move paid off. Ukandu still needed some fine-tuning, but his size, speed and power were too much for the Baltimore County competition.

"He really clogged up the holes," Eric Ukandu said. "You couldn't run at him."

Ukandu excelled at defensive tackle, but the moment he truly separated himself had nothing to do with stuffing the run or hunting quarterbacks.

In the 2010 season finale against Catonsville, Mathena decided to add a few new wrinkles to the offense. Just for kicks he inserted Ukandu into the lineup at fullback. The defensive-tackle-turned-blocking-'back proceeded to flatten two Comets linebackers and rack up a few solid gains on the ground.

"We kind of put him back there last minute and he looked like a natural," Mathena said. "That's when we knew he was more then just a typical lineman - he could really move for a guy his size. He could probably play fullback at the next level if he had to. That's how athletic he is."

Ukandu called the game "fun," although he didn't want to make fullback a permanent gig.

"I'm a defensive guy," Ukandu said. "But it did feel good to get a few carries. I felt comfortable back there."

About the only thing he's not comfortable with is conversation. Ukandu can go an entire school day, plus all of practice, without uttering so much as a "yes, sir" or "no, sir," according to Mathena.

Of course, the side Ukandu shows his coach and the side he shows his friends are a little different.

"He comes over my house and talks all the time," Erick Ukandu said. "He can actually be a little cocky sometimes (laughs). But if he doesn't know you, he won't say a whole lot."

That's especially true on game days. Despite playing down in the trenches, where linemen are yapping and jawing all game long, Ukandu rarely utters a word.

"I want to be the quiet assassin," he said. "No reason to give the other guys any motivation."

Ukandu's game was anything but quiet last year. After building his body and improving his footwork during the offseason, he became virtually unstoppable on defense. That is, until he suffered an early-season injury that knocked him out a few games.

But Ukandu returned in time for a midseason match against Chesapeake. As if he were making up for lost time, he racked up 17 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

With Towson leading 9-6 late in the game, Ukandu single-handedly ended Chesapeake's comeback hopes. Chesapeake tried a play-action pass, but Ukandu pummeled the center, knifed into the backfield and practically grabbed the ball out of the quarterback's hands. He then pounced on the loose ball, setring Towson up for their game-icing touchdown.

"He just tore Chesapeake apart," Mathena said. "They couldn't touch him."

Ukandu's stellar career, along with his 3.8 GPA, solid size and superior strength has opened the eyes of everyone from Baltimore County foes to Division-I college recruiters.

Based on that alone, it would seem Ukandu has finally lived up to his name, the one his father bestowed upon him at birth.

Just don't tell the big man that.

"Not yet," Ukandu said, carefully considering his career. "I'm nowhere near done yet."

Fitting response from an "Azubuike."

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