COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When Maryland junior defensive tackle Azbuike Ukandu earned what he dubbed his first “real” collegiate start Oct. 3 against Michigan, he didn’t see it as some seminal moment. The former walk-on from Towson High (Md.) merely took the news in stride, almost like he’d just earned another “A” in bio-chem (a routine occurrence).
“It kind of just came to me. The West Virginia game I played a lot, and on that Sunday [after WVU] the coaches came in and said, ‘Hey, you’re playing with the ones now,’” the 6-foot, 307-pounder said. “So that was that.”
The understated Ukandu, who rose to the top of the depth chart in the wake of David Shaw’s season-ending injury, may have tried to downplay the occasion, but his parents, Nigerian natives who have attended most every home game since their son arrived at Maryland four years ago, couldn’t have been more proud. Neither could his coaches and teammates.
Although Maryland ended up falling, 28-0, Ukandu played a significant role in holding the Wolverines to six first-half points. He routinely plugged holes, out-leveraged opposing linemen and ate up blockers. Once or twice, he even pushed into the backfield.
“I thought Zubi played well,” head coach Randy Edsall said. “He went in there, he’s a compact guy, he’s got good explosion, he has a good, quick first two steps and because he’s built low to the ground he’s going to play with really good leverage. I like the effort, I like the contribution we got out of him. He’s earned the right to be the starter, and we expect him to keep getting better with the reps he’s going to get. I was pleased with what he did in there [Oct. 3].”
UMD defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski concurred with the headman, noting Ukandu’s strong hands; potent punch; and run-defense prowess. Apparently a couple Michigan coaches were impressed with the undersized plugger too.
“Some of the opposing coaches came over and complimented him,” Dudzinski said. “He’s a fireplug in there. I’m very pleased with what he’s done. He’s earned it every day in practice and the preseason … and he’ll continue to get better.”
Granted, unless you watched the game closely, Ukandu’s performance probably went unnoticed to the average fan’s eye. Which is understandable considering Ukandu didn’t register a single tackle and only appeared in the stat book for having started the game.
“I think I did my job and did what the coaches asked me to do to the best of my abilities. Just closing the hole off, allowing my linebackers to get through. Jermaine [Carter], he was able to make a lot of tackles [with] me keeping the linemen off of him,” said Ukandu, who played his first two college games last season, including one against Wisconsin where he recorded a pair of stops. “I didn’t get in the stat book with [personal] stats, but it showed up for our linebackers. So I think I did well, but we lost, so . . .”
Yes, individual performances are often tempered following defeat, especially when your team is shut out. Although, in Ukandu’s case, he pretty much takes the same even-keeled approach after all personal accomplishments. That includes when he finally landed a scholarship after fall camp back in August.
Many of Maryland’s walk-ons who were presented with scholarships expressed varying degrees of awe. Guard Mike Minter called it arguably the best moment of his young life, while defensive tackle Ty Tucker said it was a dream come true.
“Well, you know, it’s near the top [of my accomplishments],” he said. “The Wisconsin game last year was pretty cool, but [earning the scholarship] was near the top. And honestly, I didn’t know anything about it. Coach just came in and told us all to stand up. He said, ‘You know, you earned a scholarship.’ So I gave my mom a call and she was real happy. That was pretty cool.”
Maybe Ukandu didn’t seem as enthralled compared to his fellow former walk-ons since he always expected to be on scholarship. Even coming out of Towson, which has produced very few, if any, Division I players, Ukandu always believed he could hang in the FBS.
“I had confidence I’d get to this level, because my former teammate, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, went the same route as me, and he earned a scholarship,” said Ukandu, whose younger brother, Chibuzo, earned a scholarship from Navy coming out of Gilman (Baltimore, Md.). “That gave me confidence that I would eventually earn one if I kept on working.”
Cudjoe-Virgil also attended Towson High (2005-2009) before enrolling at Division II Seton Hill in 2010. Two years later, he transferred to Maryland, playing two seasons on a full ride. Cudjoe-Virgil eventually rose to a starting role at UMD and was a member of the team’s Leadership Council for two years in College Park.
“I always went to Yannik for advice. He always stayed in my ear, and he just kept saying, ‘It’s going to come, it’s going to come,’” said Ukandu, who mentioned how knowing the playbook and becoming mentally stronger helped him immensely during camp. “And I just saw his work ethic and tried to [emulate] that, and it paid off.
“And I’ve seen how ‘Q’ [Terps’ defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson] has been playing a lot since my true freshman year. He’s given me a lot of tips on how to read formations and how to look at offensive linemen’s stances to see what possible blocks I might get. [Jefferson and Cudjoe-Virgil] just always told me to keep working, keep working, and it would pay off.”
The local lineman, who has lived in Towson his entire life save for two trips to Nigeria years ago (the last in fifth grade), may have credited Jefferson, but Maryland’s starting senior defensive tackle wasn’t the least bit surprised about his teammate’s rise. Jefferson has seen Ukandu improve for the last three seasons, calling him a “real baller.”
“[Ukandu] got his opportunity and he’s definitely making the most of it,” Jefferson said. “I’m so happy for him and proud of him, and I know he’s going to continue playing well the rest of this year. He’s a good player.”
Ukandu passed Test No. 1, but the follow-up exam is like taking that end-of-year 400-level chemistry lab. Indeed, a bout with Ohio State looms Oct. 10 in Columbus, Ohio.
“I welcome the opportunity. I’m competitive and at the end of the game you want to play against the best,” Ukandu said. “So this is another chance to prove myself.”