The Wolverine

December 2018

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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36 THE WOLVERINE DECEMBER 2018   MICHIGAN FOOTBALL The high schooler who struggled to get offers has now become one of the premier pass rushers in the country. Through 10 games, Uche has 13 tackles in his limited snaps — but seven of them are sacks, and another was a tackle for loss. "He's unblockable," junior linebacker Khaleke Hudson said. "To me, I don't think any- one can block him. That's the way I feel." But Uche wasn't always un- blockable. Coming to Columbus High School at the end of his sopho- more year, Uche was long, but light, a raw talent for Merritt to mold into a pass rusher. "He's not your typical South Florida kid," Merritt said. "His football IQ just wasn't there yet. To him, everything was pass rush. "He didn't realize on first down, you have to take on a drive block." While he didn't have the football knowledge, there was still a lot to work with. Merritt said Uche was very intel- ligent and did a great job absorbing the information that was thrown at him. The one thing he always had was speed and athleticism. "It was kind of like having a gun and not knowing where to point it," Merritt said. Uche had a different upbringing than other South Florida kids. Uche's family came to the United States from Nigeria and his father was an engineer. He didn't have the same exposure and social environment as other kids in Mi- ami and his family instilled him with discipline and high expectations. Not long after that meeting with Merritt, Uche was offered by Miami and he committed to play for then- coach Al Golden. Playing for the Hurricanes was a lifelong dream, but Golden was fired and replaced by Mark Richt in December 2015. Uche was back on the market again, and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, who coveted Uche while he was the defensive coordinator at Boston College, had a different U-M on his chest than the one Uche grew up rooting for, but eventually convinced the prospect to head north. When Uche got to Michigan, he was in for an adjustment. Uche played defensive end in high school and switched to linebacker when he ar- rived in Ann Arbor. Early in his career, Uche barely saw the field, playing in just four games as a freshman in 2016. But he kept working and continued to get better. "I feel like he stayed humble," Hud- son said. "He knew his time was going to come sooner or later and he was patient. He wasn't complaining." In his sophomore season, he played 39 snaps and registered one sack among his three tackles. To begin his junior year, he didn't see the field much in the first four games of the season. Everything changed during the Northwestern matchup. Against the Wildcats, junior defen- sive end Rashan Gary left with an injury and Uche picked up the pass- rushing slack with two sacks. Along with sophomore defensive lineman Kwity Paye, Uche filled in for Gary for the next three games. "I love it," Gary said. "That's some- thing I've been seeing since spring ball and camp. Now they have the oppor- tunity to show off and showcase their talents. "Every time that Uche goes, I expect him to get a sack." When the opportunity arose, Uche knocked that door down. Since the Northwestern game, he has seven sacks. He racked up that impressive total in only 60 plays across a five-game stretch (Northwestern, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, with another pair of two-sack outings in the lat- ter two). Uche's success comes back to his pass rushing talent. "He's got a real knack to cre- ate speed off the edge and then convert that to power when he needs it, but he also has the speed off the edge," Michi- gan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's highly determined and motivated. He's a real special player as well." Uche developed under the tutelage of Brown. "We've been able to carve a role for Uche," Brown said on 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit. "And, boy, he's played really well. When you take produc- tion in terms of time on task and the snaps he has in a par- ticular week and what he accomplishes in a game, it's special." His success doesn't shock Hudson, who lived with Uche in the spring and fall. Hudson has seen all the work Uche has put into his craft. "He's a pass-rush technician," Hud- son said. "I was saying in spring ball that he was going to have a big year this year. I'm not even surprised." Sophomore fullback Ben Mason at- tempts to block Uche in practice and has seen just how frightening the de- fender can be. "He's just so fast and powerful at the same time," Mason said. "The scariest part about that, he's only going to get bigger and faster." Uche's stock has risen just as quickly as it did in high school. That raw pass rusher that Merritt coached at Colum- bus has blossomed into a player terror- izing Big Ten quarterbacks. All Uche needed was a chance. "When it comes to pressuring the quarterback, the sky is the limit for him," Merritt said. "He's been waiting for the opportunity to get on the field the last couple of years. "The next progression for him is to become an every-down guy, not just a third-down pass rush guy. That's his goal." — Andrew Hussey Despite playing limited snaps, Uche has notched two-sack games against Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State to help reach his team-high total of 7.0 through 10 games. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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