When Louisville football is mentioned, thoughts turn to frequent first downs, big plays and plenty of points. But recent history suggests the Cardinals’ defense deserves a far bigger share of the spotlight.
Take the past two years for example. U of L’s top defenders - /files/storyimages/Elvis Dumervil and tackle Amobi Okoye - are the ones who have made the most noise at NFL Draft time.
Okoye, who began official workouts with the Houston Texans on July 27, plans to ride his momentum to a starting spot.
“I expect a lot out of myself,” he said. “I have a lot of expectations, and the most important one would be to keep the Defensive Rookie of the Year award right here in Houston.” Last season, Texan linebacker DeMeco Ryans earned the honor.
Okoye, who turned 20 years old on June 10, was mostly known as college football’s youngest player before he leaped on to the national scene last year, following up on Dumervil’s remarkable senior season. He will be the youngest player in the NFL this year.
In 2005, Dumervil emerged as the nation’s top defensive player, making 20 sacks, forcing an NCAA record 10 fumbles, winning consensus All-America honors and claiming the Bronko Nagurski Award in the process. In 2006, Okoye led U of L to a remarkable 12-1 season and streaked toward the top of the NFL Draft charts. He was the Houston Texans’ first-round pick, the 10th selection overall.
Last year with the Broncos, Dumervil (pictured left) recorded 8.5 sacks, tying for third-most by a rookie in Denver history and ranking with the third-highest total among NFL rookies for the year. He posted five sacks in a two-game period, which gave him the most by an NFL rookie in consecutive games since 2001.
Last week, Okoye punctuated his move to the NFL by signing a six-year contract that guarantees him $12.785 million in cash and a maximum value of $17.6 million. Not bad for a fellow who played much of his career in the shadow of Cardinal quarterback Brian Brohm, running back Michael Bush and a lineup of speedy receivers.
“Amobi is a smart kid,” veteran Texas defensive lineman Anthony Weaver told the Houston Chronicle. “The good thing is that he’s not going to be overwhelmed by the game. He’s going to go out there and do what he’s done through college – listen to his coaches, accept the coaching and play well.”
Last season, the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Okoye collected eight sacks, had 55 tackles (including 15 for losses) and forced three fumbles as Louisville won the Big East Championship and then topped Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. So far in this year’s preseason drills he has lined up as a likely starter alongside /files/storyimages/Mario Williams, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. “For being a young guy, his work ethic is phenomenal,” said Williams, the 6-7, 291-pound former N.C. State star.Another Houston veteran, N.D. Kalu (6-3, 265, Rice) agrees.“All that I’ve seen out of Amobi tells me he’s a special guy,” said Kalu, whose locker was purposely located adjacent to Okoye’s by team officials. “Hopefully, I’ll be a good presence for him,” he said. “Just to show him the work ethic – how even after 11 years you still have to bust your butt and try to make the team. And just to stay humble in the way you approach the game.”Although Okoye (pictured left, 91) had considerable bargaining position, he made it clear to his agents Ian Greengross and Darin Morgan that he wanted to be signed and ready to play when preseason camp began. The contract was officially inked just a few hours before the former Cardinal star took the field for his first summer drills with the Texans.“Some guys don’t think they have anything to prove because they were first-round picks and get all that money, but you still have to prove yourself to your teammates,” said Kalu. “That’s what training camp does. It gives you a chance to show your teammates what you’re all about.”Texan cornerback Dunta Robinson (5-10, 174, South Carolina) concurred: “You have to sweat. You have to bleed with the guys in order to understand what happens on the football field. It’s very important to have all the guys in here (for camp) on time.”Okoye and Dumervil are poised to continue U of L’s rich tradition of defensive standouts who went on to successful NFL careers. The group includes such performers as Lenny Lyles (49ers, Colts), Dwayne Woodruff (Steelers), Larry Ball (Dolphins, Lions, Bucs), Charlie Johnson (49ers), Amos Martin (Vikings, Seahawks), Richard Bishop (Rams, Dolphins, Patriots) Tom Jackson (Broncos), Otis Wilson (Bears), Eddie Johnson (Browns), Frank Minnifield (Browns), Mike Flores (Eagles), Joe Johnson (Saints, Packers), Mark Sander (Dolphins), Ray Buchanan (Colts, Raiders, Falcons), Ted Washington (49ers, Broncos, Bills, Patriots, Raiders, Browns), Carl Powell (Colts, Ravens, Redskins, Bengals), Sam Madison (Dolphins, Giants) Dewayne White (Bucs, Lions) and Kerry Rhodes (Jets). In all, more than 25 former Cards are listed on current NFL rosters, and several other U of L standouts are preparing to make their cases for NFL consideration in their final season at Louisville. Who will be the Louisville's next defensive star that makes it big?
Some say it will be linebacker Malik Jackson (6-2, 231, Dunwoody, Ga.), who ranked second in the Big East last year in sacks (9) and tackles for loss (17). But as history has shown in recent years, the Cards may have another draft-day surprise in mind like Dumervil and Okoye who have strengthened U of L’s reputation as a total program, not just an offensive juggernaut.
NOTE: Daily columnist Ron Steiner also appears on the Red & Blue Review, a weekly statewide TV sports show (Insight Ch. 2). He’s also published weekly in the Voice-Tribune and is a guest each Friday (5:45 p.m.) on the Cardinal Insider radio program (WKRD, 790AM). He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com