Emeka Nwankwo made quite a name for himself at Chaminade-Madonna Prep high school during his junior season. The 6-foot-4, 283-pound lineman earned quite a number of impressive scholarship offers early in the recruiting process, including offers from schools like Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, Georgia and Virginia. But most of those teams liked the Broward County star as an offensive lineman. Nwankwo was thrilled to be noticed and to have so many schools to choose from, but there was a hitch, Nwankwo wanted to play defensive line.
The former two-way player believed he could make it on the defensive side of the ball at Notre Dame, and there he is, listed as the No. 2 defensive end on the depth chart released today.
"Just having this opportunity has been great," Nwankwo said. "It's been great to show that I am athletic and I can go on the other side of the ball and play defensive line. I've really enjoyed it so far. I really like that side of the ball.
"It's going way better than I anticipated it…..way better. I'm really loving it."
The word on the street has been that Nwankwo has played quite well thus far early in his Notre Dame career, even though he's spent his early days on the Scout team, but the former first-team Florida Class 2A all-state player says he was thankful for his scout team experience.
"You get your wins and you get your losses," he said of slugging it out with Notre Dame's starting offensive line last year. "You just have to bounce back and come back every practice and play stronger. You know he got you that time but you're going to get him next time.
"It's more about technique in college. You can have 320-pound offensive lineman going against a 280-pound D-lineman, but it's all about technique. Once you get that technique down, you get going pretty good.
"The scout team really helps a lot, even though a lot of people make it out to be a bad thing. It's really a positive. If you make it into a positive it can really be beneficial. I made it into a real positive, and I'm a lot better than I was last year. I don't have game experience, but my intensity level has gone up so much playing against those guys that I feel like I'm ready to be a factor this year."
The sophomore-to-be also said he learned a great deal from watching his mentor, former Irish defensive end Trevor Laws play last year and is hoping to apply that to the field this year.
"That really gave me a chance to sit back and watch Trevor (Laws) play," Nwankwo said of red-shirting last season. "That really helped me a lot. It saved me a year and I have an extra year now. I actually appreciate it.
"It really motivates you to see someone play like Trevor. We feed off of that, even today. Just watching it, it motivates you. I'm trying to duplicate what he did. It motivates me. I want to play like that."
The Irish coaching staff has also turned up the heat on Nwankwo, including defensive line coach Jappy Oliver.
"All the coaches just told me that I have to step up this year and become a factor," he said. "We have to grow up early. We have to stop playing like freshmen and start playing like seniors. That's the plan."
"I like the way he coaches," he said of Oliver. "I like it when a coach pushes you because it shows that he cares and wants you to be a better player. If they're not yelling they don't care. They're just letting you do what you want and you're not going to get better that way. I like the way he coaches."
Adjusting to life at Notre Dame is never easy for any football player, especially freshmen from the Sunshine state. Nwankwo admits that this winter has been both brutal and a culture shock for him.
"The weather is something else. It really is," Nwankwo said. "It does a toll on you. When you haven't seen the sun in a couple of days, it does take some getting used to. It's snow and more snow. It actually makes you grow up. It matures you. It makes you appreciate the little things.
"It makes it hard when you have to get up and work out at 5 a.m. If it snows the night before, that isn't fun. You have to get up early in the morning to work out and trample through all of this snow, but that makes you tougher. You feel like you've earned something.
"You've got to come every day with the right mindset. You have to be mentally strong. We preach about being mentally strong. You can't let someone beat you."
Being mentally tough also helped No. 91 get through the grueling winter lifting session.
"It was harder," the Florida native said when asked if winter conditioning was as difficult as he anticipated. "I got through it and I'm proud myself. There's a lot of running. There's a lot to it. It's tough. If you don't think about it, and you just do it, it makes it easier."
Now the focus is spring practice, and Nwankwo has some goals for this spring.
"The competition is really healthy," he said. "We all know that nobody has a spot right now. We're going to have to earn that spot, so it really makes you get after it.
"I just want to make a name for myself. I want to be a factor on this team—be a factor on this defense. I want to try to help this win that championship."
And Nwankwo wants to be part of the "swagger" head coach Charlie Weis talked about on Wednesday when discussing his goals for spring practice.
"It's not something you get, it's something you have," Nwankwo said when asked how he'll get that attitude Weis spoke of. "You can always sense that in a person. Trevor had that swagger, on and off the field. You showed him respect when you saw him. That's something our team has to do. We have to earn that respect like he did."
Will Nwankwo earn that respect?
"Hopefully I'll get to the point where I play better," he said when asked if he felt he could ever play like Laws. "At this time I'm just trying to get to that point. I know how hard he worked to get there. That's what I'm going to do."
Nwankwo Still Standing
IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories
Second half stars?With the season’s second half a week away, these 10 players can help reverse the course of Notre Dame’s campaign and perhaps set the table for a bounce back beyond November.
Status Reports: Irish CornerbacksThe sixth installment in our series of mid-season evaluations examines Notre Dame’s roster with a look at each individual’s status entering the bye week. Is he ascending? Has he…
Status Reports: Irish SafetiesThe fifth installment in our series of mid-season evaluations examines Notre Dame’s roster with a look at each individual’s status entering the bye week. Is he ascending? Has he…
Swarbrick guarantees Kelly return in ‘17Brian Kelly will be Notre Dame’s head coach next season. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick revealed as much on Friday to ESPN.com.
IrishIllustrated.comYesterday at 5:30 AM