Ukandu has made his dream come true

DL turned down other of­fers to walk on with Terps, is now a starter

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

COL­LEGE PARK — From the time he started play­ing or­ga­nized foot­ball as a fresh­man at Tow­son High, Azubuike Ukandu had one goal in mind: to play some­day at Mary­land.

Even when he was vir­tu­ally ig­nored by ev­ery Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion team, in­clud­ing the Terps, Ukandu (pro­nounced yoo-CAN-doo) never gave up on his dream.

While he had sev­eral of­fers from Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion teams, in­clud­ing Prince­ton, the un­der­sized de­fen­sive line­man was stead­fast.

“Prince­ton came re­cruit­ing me, sent a whole bunch of let­ters say­ing they were in­ter­ested in me, but I wasn’t re­ally i nter­ested in play­ing for an Ivy League school,” Ukandu re­called Wed­nes­day. “I felt like I was tal­ented enough to play at a higher level than that.”

It took Ukandu, 6 feet 1, 307 pounds, t hree years to get a schol­ar­ship and a half of his fourth, as a red­shirt ju­nior last sea­son, to make what he called a “siz­able con­tri­bu­tion” to the de­fense.

Ukandu, who got his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree last spring and is now play­ing as a grad­u­ate stu­dent, is prov­ing that his long­time dream was more re­al­is­tic than many might have be­lieved.

Go­ing into Satur­day night’s home game against Michi­gan State at Mary­land Sta­dium, Ukandu is com­ing off his most im­pres­sive per­for­mance as a Terp. He fin­ished with a team- and ca­reer­high 12 tack­les last week against Min­nesota.

The down­side was that it came in a 31-10 loss, the sec­ond straight for Mary­land after a 4-0 start.

“I felt I played fairly de­cent, but at the end of the day, it’s about wins and losses,” Ukandu said. “I think I played pretty well. I could al­ways play bet­ter.”

First-year coach DJ Durkin said it took him awhile to look at the pos­i­tive per­for­mances against Min­nesota, though what Ukandu did in his first col­lege start was at or near the top of the list. Azubuike Ukandu Satur­day, 7:30 p.m. TV: Big Ten Net­work Ra­dio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM Line: Michi­gan State by 21⁄

Durkin said the num­ber of tack­les Ukandu made was atyp­i­cal for a nose tackle.

“Zu­bie played a tremen­dous game,” Durkin said, re­fer­ring to Ukandu’s nick­name. “Usu­ally those guys are not in on that many plays. His growth has been great. What we have to do as we’ve done at other times is have more guys play at that level and con­sis­tently play at that level.”

Said de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Andy Buh: “Zu­bie’s been pretty solid all year long. [The Golden Go­phers] were run­ning the ball more in his area and we al­ways say if the ball’s in your gap or on your [hel­met], you ei­ther make it or you don’t, and Zu­bie made them. He made a lot of them. We call them crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions. He got him­self in a lot of crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions and he made most of them.”

Ukandu can look back at the sec­ond half of last sea­son as a turn­ing point in his ca­reer.

A starter in eight games, Ukandu had a stretch of three weeks that be­gan when he made four tack­les against Iowa, five against Michi­gan State and six against Wis­con­sin.

Though the Terps lost all three games, Ukandu said it proved that his de­ci­sion to play on the FBS level was the right one. Even his fa­ther, Madu, had hoped his son would play at Prince­ton.

“When you play well against good com­pe­ti­tion, it al­ways shows that you can play against any­body and that gives you the con­fi­dence to go against any­body, any day, any­time,” Ukandu said. “That was re­ally a con­fi­dence-booster last year, and I just con­tinue to roll with it.”

Ukandu said he in­her­ited his work ethic — as well as his de­sire to get a good ed­u­ca­tion — from his par­ents.

His fa­ther ar­rived in the United States in 1980 to study ac­count­ing at Cop­pin State and set­tled in Bal­ti­more after get­ting his mas­ter’s in finance from Mor­gan State in 1985. His mother, Grace, came in 1994, five years after his par­ents were mar­ried, and is now a nurse for the De­part­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs.

“They showed me that any­thing is pos­si­ble,” Ukandu said Wed­nes­day. “Com­ing over here, they had no pre­vi­ous fam­ily. They had to get it from the ground up. That showed me how to grind and get what­ever I put my mind to. Just work for it. Keep on push­ing.”

Ukandu’s younger brother, Chibuzo, played at Gil­man and was re­cruited to play of­fen­sive line at Navy, but stopped play­ing last spring after suf­fer­ing a con­cus­sion. Ukandu said his brother hes­i­tated to tell him.

“I didn’t even know he wasn’t play­ing still un­til this sum­mer, be­cause he didn’t tell me any­thing about it,” Ukandu said.

What his brother is go­ing through, and De­fen­sive line­man Azubuike Ukandu car­ries a Mary­land flag as he runs onto the field be­fore the Terps’ game with Wis­con­sin on Nov. 7, when Ukandu made six tack­les. what he knows he will likely en­counter when his col­lege ca­reer ends, goes back to what was in­stilled long ago by his par­ents when he was al­lowed to try out for the high school team as long as he kept up his grades.

“I main­tained that through col­lege, be­cause when I got here, they said the same things about foot­ball,” Ukandu said. “At the end of the day, foot­ball’s not go­ing to last you the rest of your life — your ed­u­ca­tion will.”

In Igbo, his fam­ily’s na­tive lan­guage, Azubuike ( pro­nounced Azu-BEEK-a) means “hav­ing a strong fam­ily at your back,” Grace Ukandu said.

Her older son can ap­pre­ci­ate the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness re­gard­ing his team­mates dur­ing an up-and-down sea­son.

“We all strongly sup­port each” other, Ukandu said. “Al­ways make sure that if the next per­son is down, you get them up and keep the train rolling be­cause you never want to leave some­body be­hind be­cause stronger as one unit that we are sep­a­rated apart.”


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