COLLEGE PARK, Md. – There hasn’t been a Terp with such an outlandish, eccentric and downright hysterical personality since A.J. Francis graced Maryland’s defensive line. But junior nose tackle Kingsley Opara can certainly make a run at Francis’ mantle if he’s granted more media opportunities.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Jacksonville, Fla., native has not only come out of his turtle shell as a player after three years in College Park, but he’s finally expressing himself publicly, immediately rising to the top of the go-to-quote board Oct. 26.
“Coach [D.J.] Durkin says if you have personality, go ahead and show it,” Opara said. “The coaches let me be me. I’m the character guy, the funny guy, the guy people want to be around.”
Well, most of the time anyway. Once in awhile his locker-room antics can cause quite a stir. Like when he sent fellow linemate Azubuike Ukandu a fake report from the team’s “class checkers” reprimanding Ukandu for cutting a lecture course.
“Zubi was all panicked like, ‘Oh my god, I went to class, I went to class,’” Opara said, mimicking his teammate's expressions. “That was pretty great.”
Opara has been known to break out a few dance moves at random times as well. In a rare moment of humility, however, he admitted he wasn’t the best dancer on the team.
“Nah, Alvin Hill probably is. He does ballet,” said Opara, rolling his eyes slightly at the cornerback’s off-the-field hobby. “JaJuan Dulaney is pretty good too, and the [Daniels] twins are always dancing before games and stuff.”
He might not be as nimble as Hill or the Danielses, but Opara has danced his way up the depth chart by using way more than just his feet. Opara’s hands are quicker, his base is stronger, his football IQ is more apparent, and, yes, his steps are more precise.
Opara has started all seven games so far, and he ranks among the team leaders with 29 tackles, seven tackles for loss a sack and a fumble recovery. He’s coming off a six-stop, one tackle-for-loss outing, playing a key role in Maryland’s victory against Michigan State.
“Kingsley does what we ask him to do. That’s probably the most important thing we can say about him,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. “He’s one guy who we can rely on all three downs.”
When informed of Buh’s comments, Opara looked rather startled.
“That’s pretty cool, actually. I honestly didn’t know he [thought] that,” Opara said. “But I just try to be versatile. My dream is to play in the NFL one day, and the guys [former Terps Quinton Jefferson and Yannick Ngakoue] told me I have to be as versatile as possible. So whatever the coaches need me to do I’ll do it. If they need me to play quarterback, I’ll do it. I’m a big guy, so I know I’ll be sturdy against the run, but I’m working on my pass rushing. But whatever I need to do to stay on the field I’ll do.”
If Opara’s rise seems surprising to outsiders, it isn’t to those within the program.
Or, naturally, Opara himself.
During the offseason, the plugger spent extensive time with strength coach Rick Court and his staff. Opara credited the conditioning group with helping him drop 10 pounds and decrease his body fat from 26 to 17 percent. Plus, he limited his bread, cheese and sweets intake.
“For the most part,” Opara said, laughing. “But I always have my Wingstop Wednesday. Actually, today [Oct. 26] is Wednesday isn’t it? I’m going to Wingstop (laughs).”
Besides a cheat day here and there, Opara stayed on-point with his conditioning and eating habits. Then, he said he and the other defensive linemen would work out daily on hand-fighting drills, rush move drills and hula-hoop drills (i.e. bending the edge and slapping O-linemen's hands away). They also studied loads of film in order to actively diagnose backfield sets and anticipate where the ball could be going.
“Individually I worked really hard in the offseason. And I took tips from guys like Q [Quinton Jefferson] and Yan [Yannick Ngakoue], and I worked on those [tips] in the summer too,” Opara said. “Just trying to help my game any way I could.”
Opara also mentioned playing for three different defensive coordinators in as many seasons has actually aided his progress. He learned under Brian Stewart initially, Keith Dudzinski last year and finally Andy Buh in 2016.
“It made me versatile playing with great minds like Coach Stew, Coach Dud and now Coach Buh. They each bring something to the table, and it made me the player I am today,” Opara said. “It was a blessing, for real, to play for so many great minds.”
Opara’s development quickly became apparent to Buh and head coach D.J. Durkin, who has lauded the former Mandarin High three-star on more than one occasion. Eventually, the staff trusted Opara to hold up on passing and rushing downs, while also manning spots up and down the defensive line. Opara mainly resides on the interior, but against Minnesota and Michigan State he received snaps as a 5-techniue.
Moreover, Opara has also proven he can hang when the Terps move from a 4-man front to a 3-down alignment.
“In the offseason, I took pride in spring ball in knowing the whole defense, because I wanted to play nose or tackle or end,” Opara said. “So when we go to our 3-down lineup, I know my assignments. But I’m trying to expand my pass-rush technique as a 5-tech, that’s what I’m trying to work on now.”
As a result of his prowess through seven games, Opara has seen an uptick in double teams from opposing offensive linemen. Penn State, in particular, had multiple blockers on Opara, the primary reason his name wasn’t called during that debacle.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the [double team], but I have a great defensive tackle next to me in Azubuike Ukandu, and I feel like he’s one of the best in the Big Ten,” Opara said. “If [opponents] are going to double me, it makes other guys free. I take it as a compliment.”
Ah, another Ukandu reference. Turns out the two are practically inseparable and have each other’s back every step of the way.
Although, as the “class checker” incident indicates, they’re not above low-brow pranks or back-and-forth banter.
“That’s my brother for life. [Ukandu] came in the year before me and took me under his wing. Everyone knows I’m a fun guy, and we feed off each other. He’s a great guy, a great person, a great player,” Opara said before adding:
“But I look better than Zubi. I’m leaner and taller (laughs).”
Opara did allow that both he and Ukandu can be playmakers all over the defensive line. In fact, the Florida tackle said he’s talented enough where he could probably line up at a skill spot.
“Yeah, I think I’d be a pretty good quarterback,” he said, laughing out loud. “I could be another Jameis Winston.”
Opara considered the above statement for a moment. But then he shook his head:
“You know,” he said, “thank god I play D-line.”