Getting To Know: Linebacker Patrick Chukwurah
There are plenty of names ahead of him. Looking at the top of the depth chart, numerous names proceed his.
First, there's the starting linebacking corps of Gabe Northern on the strong side, Kailee Wong in the middle and Ed McDaniel on the weak side. Next you have the backups: Lemanski Hall replacing Northern, Craig Sauer subbing for Wong and Jim Nelson filling in for McDaniel.
After scanning through the first six players on the linebacker depth chart, his name — for now appearing as nothing more than a blip on the radar screen — finally makes an appearance.
Pronouncing his name with the ebb and flow of a poorly written Haiku, he is finally evident in the third tier of Minnesota Vikings linebackers. There he is, playing third-string strongside linebacker, out of the University of Wyoming — Patrick Chukwurah.
Sounds like a name George W. Bush would love pronouncing over and over in a presidential speech hoping to impress listeners with the proper enunciation. In case you missed it, his name is Patrick Chukwurah; that's CHUCK-woo-rah.
You probably don't know much about him. You may not even get to know him during training camp or even by the end of the season. Chukwurah is one of those players who may spend some time on the proverbial bubble, surviving cuts and slowly, patiently moving up the personnel ladder.
The reason he is wearing purple is his love for the quarterback. Actually, it was his passionate desire to physically place quarterbacks on their backs that opened the eyes of Vikings scouts, eventually luring them to select the Wyoming senior in the fifth round of the NFL draft last spring.
Chukwurah was a three-year starter at Wyoming, where, in 45 games, he made 245 tackles with 27 sacks and 47 tackles-for-loss. Looking for a player to routinely occupy a spot on the All-Mountain West Conference football team? Chukwurah is your guy. His speed, tenacity and enthusiasm for conducting seek-and-destroy missions aimed at Mountain West quarterbacks opened enough eyes in the Winter Park war room for the Vikings' decision-makers to snatch him up with their fifth-round pick.
After the Vikings drafted Chukwurah and flew him to the Twin Cities to go through the guided tour of Winter Park as well as a token press conference or two, he had two choices: Take some time off away from football before his professional career began or hit the weight room and start working out at a new level.
To Chukwurah, the choice was a no-brainer. Immediately, he shifted all focus toward improving himself physically and mentally for the Vikings season to come. If he was going to make it in the NFL, if he was going to survive as a football player at the game's highest level in the world, vacations could wait. Work was his only option.
"I like to play video games, hang out with my friends at the house or play basketball … whatever it takes not to get in trouble," Chukwurah said. "But my soul purpose after the draft was getting ready for football, trying to get in condition."
For Chukwurah (and many other Vikings, actually), training camp didn't open July 30 in Mankato. For Chukwurah, training camp started in Wyoming last spring, then took a jaunt through the Twin Cities for minicamp this summer, then resumed to his home for more personal improvements, then back to Minnesota for the actual training camp in August.
The work, Chukwurah knew, was going to pay off. Anything to avoid an atrocious slide during training camp. Chukwurah tried to prepare himself so he wouldn't be struck by the harsh realities of his first NFL training camp.
"The first couple of days of camp was hard," Chukwurah said. "The first day with full pads — I hadn't been through that for a while. It's a faster tempo. But Coach (Dennis) Green takes care of his players. He likes to make sure we're ready for when it's time to handle business. We don't really go with pads a lot, but we make sure we're getting the rhythm down."
That's all Chukwurah has been trying to do so far in August. Learn the playbook, avoid mental and physical mistakes, and try to fit in with his defensive teammates, who all share one common goal: stop the offense from moving vertically.
Chukwurah spent time at linebacker in the Vikings' preseason opener Aug. 11 against the New Orleans Saints in San Antonio. More than once, Chukwurah moved up to the defensive line, with the sole purpose of rushing the quarterback. Although he didn't take part in any of the team's seven sacks, Chukwurah registered two solo tackles.
When asked to critique himself in his professional debut, Chukwurah balked at issuing a letter grade. Instead, he maintained the company line. As well he should. In mid-August, the only matter that's relevant is improvement.
"Actually, I think I can be a lot better," Chukwurah said. "I just have to get comfortable with my defense. I have to get to where I can play without having to think. I just want to fly around, like I'm used to, but this was expected. I didn't expect to come in here and be a great force or a dominant player right off the bat. I have to work for it. It'll take time."
Chukwurah was born in Nigeria, but moved to the United States when he was still a toddler. Living in Texas as a child, Chukwurah faced three options. He could either be a cowboy, an oil worker or a football player. It appears he made the right decision.
"Making it in the NFL was a blessing," he said. " That was one of my dreams since I was little. I've always wanted to play in the league. It starts when you're small, and when you start playing you have to build to that level. I knew I had a good chance, as long as I kept my mind right and kept my focus on what I needed to do. Luckily, the plans just worked out."
So far, anyway. Let's not forget the long line of Vikings in front of him. All six have at least one year in the Vikings' system. The majority of them are considered veterans of the NFL, considering the top six Vikings linebackers enter this season averaging five years of experience in the league.
Chukwurah knows playing time is at a premium and there are several worthy players, certainly more than he. He also knows the Minnesota Vikings defense was ranked one of the shabbier in the league, thanks not only to weak pass coverage in the secondary but to an inconsistent — at times nonexistent — pass rush from the front line.
That's what makes Chukwurah's fit with the Vikings so intriguing. He has the size of a linebacker, but has the quarterback-sack cravings of a defensive lineman. It's way too early to tell, but maybe Chukwurah will be a perfect fit to the Vikings puzzle.
"I can fit wherever they need to be," Chukwurah said. "If pass-rushing is where they need me to help, hey, that's what I'll do. Pass-rushing is what I did in college, but at the same time I'm big enough to play linebacker. I might not fit that mold right now, as far as my mental preparation, but I'm going to get better.
"If they want me to pass rush right now, that's what I'm going to do. If they want me to play special teams, that's what I'm going to do."
You get the feeling if the team added hauling coolers on and off the field as a task for him, Chukwurah would ask how many coolers were needed and the whereabouts of the Gatorade.
It's that enthusiasm and energy the Vikings love from a fifth-round pick. "We got guys who we feel are really good players," Green said of the team's draft on the second day that produced defensive lineman Shawn Worthen in the fourth round, Chukwurah in the fifth and cornerback Carey Scott in the sixth round. "You are looking for guys who are going to be very good players, and you're trying to predict that."
What Chukwurah can predict is that he'll give the Vikings his best shot. Whether he's covering a tight end in pass coverage or chasing down the quarterback, Chukwurah maintains he'll be ready.
"When you're sacking the quarterback, you don't get a chance to get the ball and run it back to the house, so interceptions feel pretty good," Chukwurah said. "But every time you sack the quarterback it's good. It never gets old."
The Vikings hope it doesn't. VU
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