Coogs in the NFL: Joey Mbu

When the Atlanta Falcons signed Joey Mbu to a rookie free agent contract days after the National Football League draft this past April, my eyes lit up

Being a stone’s throw from away from the Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia (living 15 minutes north in Gainesville), this fellow University of Houston alumnus decided what an opportunity it would be to conduct an in-person interview with a great Coog. He also looked pleased as his eyes lit along with that trademark flashy smile upon seeing my collared UH polo shirt.

“Big Joey,” measuring 6-foot-3 inches and currently tipping the scales at 315 pounds, is perfect in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme at defensive or nose tackle as he had the longest arms (35 inches) of any defensive tackle at February’s NFL combine. Those long arms and violent hands make it difficult for an opposing offensive lineman to get his hands inside on Mbu, thus not being able to control him. He’s also a frenetic pass rusher (though stats may not suggest as such as an interior defensive lineman) and has a quick first reaction to screen passes along with the speed to chase down plays on the opposite side of the field.

Mbu had 34 career starts over the past 3 seasons (including the last 2 as a team captain), where he where he earned All-American Athletic Conference honors as a senior by finishing with 32 tackles (4.5 for loss) and 2.5 sacks. Overall, Mbu posted 92 tackles (38 solo) with 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and eight passes defensed in 50 career games. 

Stats aside, there are certain student-athletes you just remember more than others because of who they are as people. The Richmond, Texas native is one of those players because of his vivacious attitude on the field and infectious smile off it, many times even dancing on the field. I asked him about this attitude and whether or not he brings it to ‘the league’ or it’s ‘all business’ until he at least makes an NFL roster, “Yes I want to bring that same attitude but I want to get my technique down and everything in that needs to be done first. So get my technique down, learn the plays and be comfortable in that by itself, and then I can add a little dancing and stuff.”

His position coach, former NFL great Bryan Cox, on what Joey brings to his defensive line, over the off-season (via the, “When you talk about Joey Mbu, as a rookie free agent coming in here, I think he’s shown in gym class (Off-season Training Activities or OTA’s) that he’s willing to put his hands on (people), play with the proper technique and do what you’re coaching him to do.”

The momentum Joey built up over the off-season has progressed as he’s continued to turn heads in Flowery Branch, as Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith told me after a recent practice, “Joey is a big man that has tremendous athletic ability. I LOVE his demeanor. I love him as a person. I love his quickness and I think he’ll be fun to watch the rest of the way. Right now we’ve got him playing behind Paul (Soliai) at the nose and he’s been doing a great job.” Joey himself on what he needs to do in order to survive in the league, “just work on my techniques as far as hand placement, watching film to know play recognition and just keep playing hard and putting in that effort.”

That effort Joey puts into the game came from his step-father, Charles Nzams, who at one point played for the Cameroon National soccer team, was “always the one telling me to work hard, be patient, and learn your techniques and to just really take everything in. A lot of times I would just be all uptight and he would be like, ‘just put your head on this and enjoy what you’re doing because it leaves after a while.’ Joey’s other hero’s include Jesus Christ and his mother, Helen Nso, “she was a big influence on me. My parents got divorced when I moved to Houston and it was a hard time for her. For all of us really, but I just admired how she pulled it all together, even while travelling far for work, and made sure we were all ok. She even got multiple degrees while doing so. She’s definitely a strong hero to me.” Mbu was born in Maryland but moved to Houston for the eighth grade after his parents divorced during his early teen years. It was there that his love for football started to blossom. After moving to Richmond for high school, Mbu played for the Foster Falcons under legendary coach Mark Wiatrek. A funny story the big man remembers on his transition from high school to college, “Everyone knows that I was something like 350 pounds my freshman year of college. The thing was I was around 320 my senior year of high school so I gained something like 30 pounds but I was still working out every day so I don’t know what happened (as far as the weight gain). It must have been I was still just a growing boy,” he said with more laughter.

Joey on his recollections as a Cougar and why he chose to play along Cullen Boulevard, “It was a blessing playing there man. As far as why I played there? Well Coach (Tony) Levine was recruiting me, though at the time he wasn’t the head coach, and I had a big connection with him. I got there (on a recruiting trip) and it just felt right from the start. I also knew some guys from around the area. I knew Derrick (Mathews) was committed so that also played a big factor and when it came down to it I just wanted to play for my hometown team.”

Speaking of playing for the hometown team, Joey really likes the direction the program is headed under new coach Tom Herman, “yeah man he’s cool. I like him. If I had just redshirted my senior year (his thought trails off as he laughs). I like him though. I like the vision he has to connect everyone in the Houston area whether you’re an older player or young. He even reached out to me just to wish me luck and just told me to stay close to the program.”

As far as his transition to the pros? “The NFL is more of a mental game. You have to not only know what you need to do but you also need to know what the person next to you is doing and what the offense is trying to do to you. So basically if you’re only focusing on what you need to do you might mess up one of your teammates or the offense might get the upper hand on you because they study just as much, if not more, than you do. A lot of it is recognizing what you’re about to get, what you should get and what might end up happening so most of it is just watching film. In college it’s more physical I would say. If you’re naturally better than the guy lining up across from you it’s going to show, but here (in the NFL) everyone’s good.”

If an NFL career doesn’t pan out Joey will no doubt be prepared as he majored sports administration with a minor in health. Joey’s plans on his days after the NFL, “With that I somehow want to get into the business side of sports in football primarily. I’m not sure how yet but I’d like to connect fans and the players on the business side and try to find a common ground.”

Joey’s thoughts on the Coogs moving to a P5 conference, “We need to because I learned that UH can play anywhere,” the big man said with a very confident look as his demeanor turned very serious. And finally a message to Cougar fans, “keep supporting your team. They’re going to do big things this year and I’m going to be watching so I hope everyone else is too. Go Coogs!”

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