USC had pushed Arizona State back with a penalty and a tackle for loss on a rush attempt. Uchenna Nwosu looked over and saw the down marker reading “3.” He knew the Sun Devils had a long way to go — 28 yards to be exact.
One thought went through his mind.
“It’s time to get money.”
College edge rushers are drafted primarily based on their ability to get to the quarterback. NFL edge rushers are paid handsomely if they can amass sacks. Von Miller signed the richest contract ever for a defensive player — $114.5 million with $70 million guaranteed — this offseason after he produced constant pressure against the Panthers in the Super Bowl, accumulating six tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two hurries and one pass defensed.
Nwosu knows that edge rushers are truly judged based on their ability to get to the quarterback. Setting the edge in the run game is important. Making tackles is necessary. Covering the flats and slot receivers on occasion is a positive. But to be considered a good or even great defender on the edge, you have to be able to get to and affect the quarterback.
So with the Sun Devils backed up in their own red zone, he was ready to make an impact. Nwosu had already deciphered the quarterback’s cadence and was ready to attack. He came off the edge, his shoulders dipped as he tried to avoid the pass protection of right tackle Zach Robertson. Though Robertson had his arm across Nwosu’s neck, Nwosu gained a half step and when Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins’ first option wasn’t available he felt the heat from his front side. He tried to step up in the pocket only to see defensive lineman Rasheem Green standing in his way. Before Wilkins could try to sidestep Green coming up the middle, he was hit and taken down by Nwosu for a seven-yard loss.
“Coach has been preaching when it's third-and-long, get to the quarterback,” Nwosu said. “Get to the quarterback, let's get off the field. Third down, get off the field. That's what we stressed on that play.”
The sack was a pent up deep breath that Nwosu was finally able to let out — an exclamation exhalation. His initial reaction was relief. After being close several times this season, the converted inside linebacker had his first career sack.
“Finally got it out of the way. Stanford was kind of tricking me a little bit. Utah kind of tricked me a little bit. Just finally able to get it.”
“He's been working all summer, moving to that new position and he's been getting a lot better with every day,” said Porter Gustin, who starts at the outside linebacker spot opposite of Nwosu. “He’s had some close calls just being a half a second too late or just being in the wrong spot at the wrong time and not getting the sack throughout the season, so it's great.
Excitement followed Nwosu’s initial moment of relief.
He nearly ran over a referee as he got up to celebrate and run off the field. But his outside linebackers position coach, Johnny Nansen, may have been even more pumped.
The two met near the sideline for a flying chest bump that knocked Nansen backwards. He was too gleeful to care about the potential danger of being bowled over by the 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior linebacker. Nwosu laughed later when asked who was more excited, saying they were both the “happiest dudes on the field at that point.”
"It's one of those things that you always work in practice. You practice and practice," Nansen said. "I keep telling him pass rush is one of those things you just got to keep working on it. Once it happens, you're really happy for him and that's what you saw.
"I was happy for him and now every day he's up [in my office], 'Coach what do I need to do to get some more sacks.' So it's fun when kids are making plays."
Though the chest bump was a fun moment of celebration, it was also significant for both player and coach to be able to do it together. Nansen has been coaching Nwosu since they both arrived three years ago — first as a core special teams player with Nansen as the coordinator and now as his outside linebackers coach.
“Having the opportunity to work with him as his position coach is really, really a special deal,” Nansen said. “I enjoy coaching him. He's a fun kid to coach. I just want to develop him into a player that he's capable of being.”
Nansen’s exuberance was just an example of the investment he makes in his guys.
“He cares about us so much and everything he does is for us and he loves us so much,” Nwosu said. “It feels great.”
With USC continuing to face spread offensive attacks for the next month, getting to the quarterback will be crucial. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast dialed up more pressure against Arizona State bringing at least five defenders on the first 10 plays of the game and 17 of the Sun Devils’ 21 first quarter snaps.
“He sent a lot of guys, opened up the gaps for a lot of dudes,” Nwosu said. “Left a lot of dudes in one-on-ones. We took advantage of our one-on-ones.”
Many of the defenders said they preferred the more aggressive gameplan.
“Pressure is great,” Gustin said. “Who doesn't like to rush the quarterback and get TFLs?”
“Being more aggressive lets the defense control things a little bit more and make things go the way they want to.”
It also gives the pass rushers more confidence, which is key for a guy like Nwosu, who is still learning the outside linebacker position. While the WILL, MIKE, SAM and Predator positions all share the ‘linebacker’ title, the inside and outside positions are nothing alike in Pendergast’s system.
“When you're playing the edge, you're basically a defensive lineman,” Nansen said. “You have to take on blocks that you don't take when you're inside. You don't drop as much. You're rushing so there's a lot of keys and things like that that are totally different in playing inside.
“They have to learn about taking on blocks, setting edges and then obviously work on pass rush where if you're an inside guy, you're reading the guards and the center and you drop most of the time, so it's a totally different deal.”
The coaching staff likes Nwosu’s versatility and his ability to adapt no matter what is thrown at him.
“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,” Pendergast said during fall camp. “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.”
“Chenna is doing a really good job understanding the overall scheme,” Nansen said. “He’s really taken on the road to learning it and developed into a premier pass rusher. It's especially what we need.”
Nwosu has made tremendous strides since moving outside in the spring, especially working on his pass rush moves after never having that duty in the past. He studied tape of J.J. Watt and Von Miller during the offseason, focusing on the variety of attacks Miller uses off the edge.
Nwosu's pass-rush development will continue throughout the season, but with the first sack out of the way, now it's time to do like Miller did in the Super Bowl and “go get money.”
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