LARAMIE (AP) — Speedy receiver Jalen Claiborne was running a vertical route deep downfield, but the pass was broken up.
It’s not unusual for a cornerback or safety to make that play. But how about a 6-foot-3, 235-pound outside linebacker?
University of Wyoming junior Mark Nzeocha made that play against Claiborne during a recent fall camp practice, and the hope is that the German-born Nzeocha makes plays like that — and others — once the Cowboys open their season Aug. 31 at No. 18 Nebraska.
“He is a guy that might be one of the best athletes on our football team,” fifth-year UW coach Dave Christensen said. “He is now starting to look like an American football player. He has as much athletic ability as any linebacker in the country.”
Nzeocha began his career as an outside linebacker for UW as a true freshman in 2011, and got off to a good start with 14 tackles in his first five games. But even though he played American football in Germany, the college game in this country was a lot more complicated. As Nzeocha struggled to learn it, his playing time diminished.
UW moved him to safety last season. Nzeocha’s production improved with 32 tackles and one forced fumble in 11 games. But he again struggled to learn a new position and new defensive scheme under coordinator Chris Tormey.
Nzeocha moved back to outside linebacker in the spring and quickly began to feel more comfortable. He was among the defense’s leading tacklers in three scrimmages. That carried over to fall camp as Nzeocha led UW’s starters with seven tackles in the team’s first scrimmage last Sunday.
“I feel like I found my fit, and I think I am going to stay there,” he tells the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Nzeocha should help a UW defense looking to improve from giving up 33.4 points, 232.3 rushing yards and 470.2 total yards per game last season, and allowing opponents to make 51 percent of their third-down conversions.
But that doesn’t mean Nzeocha has completely figured out how to play linebacker.
“It’s been about repetitions of playing the position,” linebackers coach Robin Ross said of Nzeocha’s progress. “He is understanding his role, knowing where he needs to be, where his eyes need to go. He is still working on techniques. You always have to keep working to get better, but he is making real good strides.”
Nzeocha, who also plays a lot on special teams, said he still needs to get his run and pass keys down. He also said, at this point, he is more comfortable in pass coverage going back to his time playing safety.
“Good thing about him is he can take a wrong step and make up for it because of his athleticism,” Ross added.
When told what Christensen said about him possibly being one of the more athletic linebackers in the country, Nzeocha said: “It pushes me and boosts my confidence. But we still have a long way to kickoff at Nebraska. I need to build off that.”
Ross agreed and described Nzeocha and the entire defense’s progression as a marathon, not a sprint.
But at this point, Nzeocha is off to a fast start.
Nzeocha is one of four players from Germany on UW’s roster. The others include Nzeocha’s younger brother, Eric, a redshirt freshman receiver; senior defensive tackle Justin Bernthaler and junior linebacker Alex Borgs.
Two players hail from Canada: junior linebacker Nehemie Kankolongo and junior walk-on cornerback Jake Schiffner.
Oscar Nevermann is a true freshman walk-on running back from Sweden.