Not inexperienced at the collegiate level, mind you, but that kind of inexperience that comes with entering just his sixth overall season of football at any level. Noble Nwachukwu didn’t grow up participating in football, even in the Texas hotbed of Wylie, a city just northeast of Dallas in perhaps the most football-crazed area in the nation. He first prep season was his junior year, and after just a dozen games, he was already receiving notice from smaller FBS programs by the winter of 2010.
Fast forward seven months, and Nwachukwu, with three major conference offers, had already committed to West Virginia. And now, the once undersized lineman is the best hope for a legitimate every down pass rusher for the Mountaineers. The junior has added bulk, putting 271 pounds on just a 6-2 frame. He understands the game, and his place within the framework of the defense. And he’s added an arsenal of moves and the blend of speed and power that could elevate the base pressure capabilities of the Mountaineers, even with just three down linemen.
“Noble, that’s a guy you guys want to watch for,” said right tackle Marquis Lucas, who must face Nwachukwu daily. “I see him having a big year. Since we started up in January with workouts, me and Noble have done a real good job of pushing each other. He is very explosive. He’s about 6-2 and he plays low. Him getting under you, I always remind myself to get low and anchor down when he goes from speed to power. He’s real good at that and he can really bend that edge.
“It’s always been there, but Noble’s work ethic really took a big jump this spring. I feel like one of his problems was consistency – that’s a lot of all our problems – but now I feel like he is doing a good job of really getting after it every day.”
Which has been the biggest of transitions. The body type and raw abilities were there. But there was always a nagging doubt in Nwachukwu’s mind as to whether he could legitimately play at this level, and at times if he wanted to continue to play at all during a redshirt season, then a freshman year in which he played in nine games, but made only five tackles.
WVU NT Kyle Rose on Nwachukwu, Jefferson and more
“It was different. I was different,” he said. “I wasn’t used to being that guy. I was used to being the dude. It was different for me, but you get used to it real quick. I knew that my time was coming up, so I tried to be patient and wait for my time when I was ready. I didn’t know how long it was going to be. I was just working hard every day. There were some days when I thought about giving it up, but I couldn’t. I gotta do it for my family and the people behind me. I just try and get better every day and see where it goes from there.”
In the brief viewable scrimmage sessions, no player has stood out along the front more than Nwachukwu. His ability to play low and mix the power and speed games, along with an understanding of proper angles to the quarterback, easily elevates him over any competition, including junior college transfer Larry Jefferson. Jefferson, at 6-5 and 225 pounds, is purely a five technique (outside shoulder of the tackle) edge rusher. He can’t hold up against larger linemen on an every down basis, and he can’t manage the run game effectively enough to see anything other than passing situations.
Nwachukwu is skilled in all those facets, while mixing that moxie one wants in a player opposing linemen must be wary of because of his blend of tools. He lacks the pure explosion of some of college football’s truly high end edge rushers, but his strength, understanding and generation of upper and lower body power is an imperative mix for a team that managed just 20 sacks last year, and ranked 99th in the NCAA FBS level for average yardage lost (1.54 yds) per sack.
“I feel like I have gotten a lot stronger, and coach (Bruce) Tall has been teaching us pass rushing moves I have never heard of before,” Nwachkuwu said. “We are doing new drills. I feel like I know more and I can do more. I still have that same mindset where you have to get better every day. I know I am not peaking.”
Nwachkuwu has played in 22 career games, with 13 starts. Barring injury, he will likely match that starting number this season alone as one of the penned in guys along the line. His 34 tackles, eight for loss, and two sacks of last year didn’t show his future value, though, and his potential with a second year in the same defense and another offseason of training, especially under the new technique-oriented coaching of Tall, is as good as any WVU defender.
“Noble is going to be realty good if we just allow him to stay in his lanes and press that edge and the line into the pocket,” nose tackle Kyle Rose said. “He can be really disruptive and he plays with a low pad level. He’s an explosive guy. You look at him and he is really put together well. I think he is coming into his own in being able to shed blocks and use that strength that he has been given. He is making a lot of plays right now.
It’s enjoyable to watch the match-ups between him and Marquis Lucas every day. I hope he has a great season. He is an explosive athlete. He has really done a good job learning the defense and maturing not just as a player, but as a person. Me and Noble are good friends and we have been on the line for a couple years now. I hope he has a lot of success.”
The biggest of issues for Nwachukwu is basic patience and avoiding the tendency to get caught up in playing too fast, or letting the emotions off the continual one-on-one battles against opposing tackles become taxing mentally. The end also benefits from the one gap set-up of the odd stack, where individual players are responsible for controlling a gap, and not playing heads up on a lineman. That creates less initial hesitation off the snap, and allows more of an attacking style, while also not forcing smaller defensive linemen to try and navigate around the huge opposing bodies in the Big 12.
“Sometimes I just have to calm myself down and not try and think too much,” Nwachukwu said. “It has happened in games, where I said to myself that I have to calm down and not let emotion get the best of me. That’s not how I play.”