Davidson Academy’s (Nashville) Obinna Eze and Ani Izuchukwu have come a long way since last summer, and not just in a geographical sense.
In addition to making the nearly 6,000-mile trip from Nigeria to Nashville, the exchange students have become two of the more coveted college football prospects in Middle Tennessee.
And they’ve managed to do so without playing a single down at the varsity level.
“That’s pretty unheard of,” GoVols247 recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan said of the Davidson Academy duo.
“It’s not a huge mystery once you see them on the field why they’ve taken off the way they have. It is a sport where you’re basing things on potential and you’re projecting down the road a few years.”
A mere five months after first picking up the sport Eze, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound senior lineman, picked up his first FBS offer from Kentucky.
Nearly the entire Southeastern Conference — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — and Duke, Louisville, Memphis and Michigan quickly followed suit.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Eze, a four-star prospect and the No. 27-ranked offensive tackle in the class of 2017 according to 247Sports. “You just wake up in the morning, put in work and hope you get better. I did get better.”
Izuchukwu’s offer list doesn’t quite measure up to Eze’s, but it still includes Alabama, LSU, Memphis, Mississippi State and Tennessee. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end and tight end is just a sophomore.
And while both possess the size, strength and speed to excel at the next level, one of their perceived weaknesses — lack of experience — might actually be one of their biggest strengths in the eyes of college coaches.
“I think in Obinna’s case that’s definitely part of the appeal,” Callahan said. “You can kind of build him up from scratch and not really have to worry about breaking any bad habits that he might have developed over the years. That’s definitely been encouraging to some of the coaches who have worked with him at satellite camps.
“He’s a guy you can mold from the ground up.”
For a foreign exchange student to be eligible for varsity sports in Tennessee, the student must be placed with a host family by an international program that is accepted by the Council on Standards for International Education Travel and be recognized by the U.S. State Department.
The student also must attend a school that offers a CSIET-approved foreign exchange program, which, in Middle Tennessee includes Davidson Academy and 18 other private schools.
Upon their arrival in the United States, Eze and Izuchukwu, whose athletic backgrounds consisted entirely of soccer and basketball, knew next to nothing about American football.
“They probably couldn’t name a single position of the field,” said Buck Fitzgerald, founder of the Nashville-based National Playmakers Academy, where both athletes regularly train.
And while Davidson Academy coach Jonathan Quinn probably could have found a spot for them on Friday nights last fall, both were required to play junior varsity to comply with Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association bylaws, which state “students possessing an F-1 visa (like Eze and Izuchukwu) are ineligible at the varsity level until they have lived with a guardian for 12 months.”
It turned out to be a necessary step, too.
“The JV game allows guys to play in a way that they can be taught,” said Quinn, a former MTSU and NFL quarterback. “A coach can be out there on the field to help them through it. You’re not facing the scrutiny of Friday night lights and all that, and, especially for guys that have never played before, it allows them to just learn the game.”
When Izuchukwu thinks back to last season, he can’t help but crack a smile.
“Sometimes when I’m at home I sit and watch my JV highlights,” said Izuchukwu, who recently underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder but is still expected to make his varsity debut at some point this season.
“I just smile and laugh because I did not know what I was doing. I was winning against my man every time, but I was confused. I didn’t know where to go or when to make a tackle. I just used what little knowledge I had to read the game.”
Despite a rather rudimentary understanding of the sport, the highlight reel is littered with sacks, forced fumbles and quarterback hurries.
Their learning curve on offense, however, was considerably steeper.
“There’s a little more technique involved,” Quinn said. “Defenses are shifting around and you’re having to make multiple reads, so it took a little longer on offense.”
“Sometimes I thought, ‘This is how football is? This is too much,’” Izuchukwu said. “I just want to learn the game. That’s the only thing stopping me.”
Living up to the hype
Eze recently returned from Nike’s The Opening, an elite combine in Beaverton, Ore., that is open to the top 166 prep players nationwide.
Still, he’s yet to prove himself against varsity competition.
“I think there probably is (pressure), especially for O with this being his senior year,” Quinn said. “The things we’re talking to him about is to just concentrate on each rep. You don’t have to bury them for it to be a good block, you just have to get in their way. If your guys don’t make the tackle then you blocked him.”
Eze said any pressure he was feeling disappeared during his time in Oregon.
“I’m way past that,” he said. “I went there and made sure for myself that I know I can play at the top level. Going there and competing with those guys lets you know, ‘You know what, I’m as good as them. I may not have the same experience as them, but I’m the same quality player.’”