Mike Casazza: WVU's Nwachukwu has a chance to be great
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- At the intersection of ability and necessity stands Noble Nwachukwu. There's probably a quarterback lying at his feet.
"He's an explosive player," West Virginia defensive lineman Kyle Rose said. "If he wants to, if he puts his mind to it, he can get around anybody. Guys can't block him. It's just a matter of who shows up. He can be the most dominant player on the field, or he can struggle at times."
Nwachukwu (waa-CHEW-coo) is neither dominant nor struggling, at least not consistently, but consistency is an issue for anyone in his spot. He is a redshirt freshman who only started playing football as a junior at Wylie High School, just north of Dallas. His father is from Nigeria, where he learned to love soccer, and he encouraged his son to do the same, but didn't protest when Noble took up basketball.
But Wylie's football coach begged Nwachukwu to try football. He finally gave in and went to work on shaking the manners with which he played soccer and basketball to become more brutish as a football player. The scholarship offers came soon thereafter.
"I wasn't really physical, but a soon as I started playing games, that came to me and I started improving," the 6-foot-2, 275-pound Nwachukwu said. "I'd say I'm physical now. It comes easier."
When Nwachukwu plays, he grows, and when he grows, he can show the flashes his coaches, teammates and new fans saw against TCU. He played 40 snaps at defensive end, easily the most action No. 97 has seen so far, and got to be quite to familiar with their quarterback.
His encore will be televised on Fox when the Mountaineers (4-5, 2-4 Big 12) play host to Texas (6-2, 5-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mountaineer Field. The Longhorns are a running team, and Nwachukwu doesn't play much against the run, but WVU wants to force Texas into passing situations so it can use weapons like Nwachukwu.
They have defensive linemen and linebackers and even safeties who are good at getting to the quarterback, but it might be that none of them are as good as Nwachukwu.
"He may, before all is said and done, be better than all of them," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "He's explosive. He's got a lot of God-given natural ability. He can be really, really good."
Nwachukwu used fast hands and heavy arms Saturday to keep people off of him. He threw spin moves at offensive linemen that left then hugging air. He ran around opponents who didn't know what to expect. He sacked Casey Pachall once and later forced Pachall forward and into Will Clarke, who forced a fumble WVU recovered to set up a touchdown.
This isn't a sudden development for the Mountaineers. They've liked Nwachukwu for a while, but they also liked Clarke, Rose, Dontrill Hyman and Eric Kinsey, and it was clear those players were further ahead. Yet it was just as obvious that Nwachukwu had to play because he deserved to and because WVU needed it.
The Mountaineers weren't getting sacks or pressure in recent games as often as they were earlier in the season, but they weren't entirely healthy, either.
Backup nose guard Christian Brown was lost for the season early on and that pulled Rose inside from time to time to spell Shaq Rowell. Hyman sprained an ankle and missed the Kansas State game and barely played against TCU.
Coincidence intervened, though, because the Horned Frogs turned out to be the perfect opponent for WVU and for Nwachukwu. The Mountaineers decided weeks ago to make the most of his talent this season by simplifying his role and asking him to focus on playing off an offensive guard's outside shoulder. He wouldn't be asked to line up directly across from anyone, like Clarke so often does, or inside, like Kinsey can do on passing downs.
WVU was turning Nwachukwu into a pass rusher. He was given one assignment for one situation and he went to work.
"I've always had confidence in my pass rush," he said. "I feel like that's my strength since I'm a littler defensive lineman. But I feel like if I've got a one-on-one, I can win. I'm faster than anyone I'm going to line up against."
As fate would have it, the Mountaineers knew that Hyman would again not be himself and that TCU would have to pass in spite of its awful running game. They then discovered that TCU never, ever double-team the opponent who lined up the way Nwachukwu had been practicing. It would be a game full of one-on-one matchups for Nwachukwu.
"I knew I was going to have a big game," he said.
He was a menace, a part of the cumulative effect that helped hit Pachall 21 times and rattled him from the first pass of the game that was tipped and intercepted to the last pass in overtime that sailed out of bounds as he was hit while rolling right on third-and-30.
"He's probably the most explosive guy I've got," Slaughter said. "He's very talented, but his deal is consistency, like any young guy. We've done a good job using him in certain situations where he can be effective against the pass or spread situations with certain personnel on the field, and he took advantage of it.
"Noble's got the ability to do that all the time. Whether he does or not is what makes him fun to watch."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.