You’ll have to forgive USC outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu if it takes him a second to catch his breath. He’s been one of the most used Trojans this season. He’s played 211 total snaps — more than any other defensive player on the roster. His 179 defensive snaps are one snap behind Michael Hutchings for most on the team.
“I'm working out. I'm staying in shape, so I try not to think about it as much,” Nwosu said. “If I need a [break], coaches will give me a [break], but overall I'm just happy to be in the game.
“It's been great. The more opportunities for me, the better. My first year starting, so I just have to make the most of my opportunities.”
A year ago, Nwosu didn’t have many opportunities.
He was one of USC’s special teams specialists, but on defense the chances weren’t prevalent. Barring an injury, he will surpass his defensive snap total from 2015 this weekend, less than a third of the way into the season. Playing primarily the SAM linebacker position, last season he was stuck behind second round NFL draft pick Su'a Cravens, who was twice named to the All-Pac-12 team after being a Freshman All-American.
But because of the high school safety’s versatile skill set, the coaching staff moved him around. Nwosu started at the rush end spot for the Arizona game and temporarily moved to the middle linebacker spot late in the season after injuries to Lamar Dawson and Cameron Smith left the position depleted.
“He’s such a tremendous athlete,” head coach Clay Helton said at the time. “He has unique body type because he has the athleticism to be out on the edge, but he also has the size to play the interior linebacker position. He brings such athleticism to the table.”
His new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast agreed with that assessment.
"He's obviously one of our top 11 players," Pendergast said during fall camp. "Very athletic. Can do a lot of different things for us. He can play up on the ball. He can play behind the ball. He can cover tight ends. He can cover backs out of the backfield.
"I'm real excited about him and I think he's got a bright future ahead of him. He's a really, really bright spot for us and I expect him to get better."
USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu makes a tackle on Stanford receiver Francis Owosu. (Shotgun Spratling)
Despite somewhat limited defensive opportunities, that's what the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker did as the 2015 season progressed. He collected a team-best six tackles against UCLA and then surpassed that career high with eight tackles the next week against Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.
Nwosu watched what Cravens was able to do and tried to take away pieces to incorporate into his own skill set.
“Just how patient and how well he reads keys, how physical he is. I try to turn that into my game.”
With Cravens now causing havoc for the Washington Redskins, it’s Nwosu’s turn to take over at the SAM spot. Under Pendergast, the SAM linebacker is used more frequently as a pass rusher than Cravens was deployed. To improve his pass rush skills, Nwosu spent time with defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze, consultant Pete Jenkins and his position coach Johnny Nansen during the offseason.
“[They] got us watching some good pass rush moves, got to teach us all these little techniques and I just work on them. You see it pays off in the game.”
Nwosu has gained confidence in his moves with each game. He had four tackles against Stanford and was credited with USC’s first ‘QB hit’ of the season when he nearly notched his first career sack against Stanford on a third down in the first half. Knowing that the Cardinal would be passing, he burst off the edge and gave left tackle Casey Tucker a small shimmy before chopping down on Tucker’s forearms with his outside arm to negate Tucker’s attempt to grab him. That gave Nwosu a step on the edge and he was able to blow by with his speed.
Tucker went flailing with a diving attempt to stop him while Nwosu was able to hit quarterback Ryan Burns on his back leg. Burns was strong enough to get the pass off and deprive Nwosu of the sack, but the throw didn’t have much on it and Chris Hawkins was able to get in for a pass breakup.
USC outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu rushes around the edge against Utah State. (Tim Lutes)
On a subsequent drive, Nwosu showed his ability to build off his previous pass rush with a complementary counter move. Tucker quick stepped to the outside to keep Nwosu from getting around the edge again. This time, Nwosu juked and came inside to get by.
“If the tackle gives it to me, I’m going to take it. If he goes to the outside, I’m going to take the inside. If he takes inside, I’m going to go on the outside. It’s basically just reading my keys, reading what the tackle gives me and then I take it.”
Unfortunately, on that play, he couldn’t keep his balance and Burns was able to step up in the pocket and run for a first down. Nwosu knows he can’t let that happen this week against Utah and quarterback Troy Williams.
“They're a big read-option team. They're very physical up front, so we just got to be ready for them. They've got a good quarterback. He likes to scramble, so we've got to keep him in the pocket. That's one of our biggest emphasis.”
Nwosu knows Williams well. They both graduated from Narbonne High School in Harbor City, Calif. Williams was a year ahead of Nwosu, but they went against each other often in practice. Nwosu believes that gives him an advantage.
“I mean I know his tendencies, so I can kind of read off of that. That's kind of going to give me an edge. I know he likes to scramble, move the pocket, so got to keep him in and when he scrambles, make my plays.
“My main concern is mainly keeping him in the pocket. If I can't get to the edge, I can't get to him, but as long as I keep him in the pocket, interior pressure should get there. We should be fine.”
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