When O'Brien Schofield and his 24.5 tackles for loss left for the NFL before the 2010 season, Nzegwu saw his roommate, J.J. Watt, was asked to help fill the production. Now after Watt tied for sixth in school history with 21.0 TFLs in single season, Nzegwu recognizes the need that it's his turn to make a similar leap.
If Thursday was any indication, Nzegwu capped a strong Friday-to-Thursday week of practice by being active on the first-team defense throughout Thursday's scrimmage, registering a pair of TFLs and was a constant in the backfield flushing quarterback Russell Wilson to make decisions on the move.
"I've been very happy with the strides Louis has made," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. "He's worked really hard and done a lot of work with his body to put himself in the right position to have some success for us this year."
If Nzegwu has a breakout senior season, the Wisconsin coaching staff will be 3-for-3 in converting skill players into solid defensive line talents, following Schofield (high school linebacker) and Watt (high school tight end).
A 225-pound all-state running back at Platteville, Nzegwu hadn't begun watching Wisconsin football until he got to high school, preferring to watch Miami (FL) instead. Imagine his surprise when he flipped on the television in high school and saw a dynamic running game, a big offensive line and a tenacious defensive front.
"Miami was the team I always liked, but I was impressed with the way (Wisconsin) ran the ball," Nzegwu said. "It got me excited that I could maybe come here to be a running back. After coming to camp, Coach Bostad recruited me and really talked to me about me having the tools to be a great defensive end down the road. It wasn't a hard sell."
The sell might not have been hard, but the transition was. Nzegwu couldn't crack the two-deep depth chart until the end of redshirt sophomore year, registering two of his 3.5 TFLs in the last four weeks of the '09 season. It gave Nzegwu a glimpse that he could compete and Partridge the opportunity to push his envelope even farther.
"The first two years were really fuzzy because of all the new things I had to learn, and he got into my head a lot, helping me be more aggressive at the point of attack," Nzegwu said of Partridge. "I had a real problem with that because I didn't know what it took to be a defensive end in the Big Ten. I did what I was told and at the end of my sophomore year, I felt I took a big step, then I progressed my junior year and I am still progressing."
It also helped having Watt as a roommate. Using an uncanny work ethic and plastering positive messages throughout their house, Watt saw that the opportunity was there to become the leader of the defense and stepped into the playmaking role. Nzegwu knew what he needed to do succeed; he needed to be bigger, faster and stronger throughout his body.
As a result of a Watt-like work ethic, Nzegwu finished second on the team in sacks and quarterback hurries and third in TFLs last season and has become a bigger playmaker in fall camp, a role model to the younger players and a person that can be counted on by Partridge.
"Louis is hovering around 252 and … it's exciting to see where he can go from there," Partridge said. "He's moving well and carrying that weight. He can do good things at the 250 range."
As he prepares for the season opener in 13 days, Nzegwu marvels, like many of his fellow seniors, how quickly his senior season approaches. He talks about living in the moment, not taking any day for granted and trying to get better as a person and a unit. They are steps he knows he needs to take to follow the big steps his predecessors left behind.
"I don't believe I have peaked out yet at my position, but I think I will by time this season is over," Nzegwu said. "If we take it one game at a time, focus on what we need to do every single play, I think we can become a great defensive line that is better than last year's group."