Ihenacho brothers lead San Jose St. defense
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Just a few years ago, Carl and Duke Ihenacho's football experience consisted of a few games of flag football as their mother wouldn't let them play Pop Warner because it was too violent.
Now the two San Jose State star defenders head into the biggest games of their college career against No. 13 Boise State on Friday night as the national leaders in tackles for loss (Carl) and interceptions (Duke).
"I sit down with my brother and talk to him saying, 'Five years ago, would you picture us playing football together and leading the NCAA in a statistical category," Carl Ihenacho said Wednesday. "We just laugh at it."
That's because until 2004 the two brothers from Southern California had spent most of their childhood playing basketball and baseball. An earlier attempt at playing youth football ended quickly when their mother, Edith, saw a violent collision between two players and walked her sons home before they could even join the team.
Duke was talked into coming out for football in his junior year at Serra High School near Los Angeles by friends and gym teacher Steve Garcia, who was also the defensive coordinator of the football team.
"When you're 16, there's not much your mom can say to have you not play football," Duke said. "If she let me play basketball, I didn't see why not let me play football. I was old enough and strong enough to withstand the physical contact of football. It was a decision I made by myself. I didn't ask her, I just told her. She said she didn't like it."
After a few practices, Duke started working on getting his older brother Carl to come out and join the team. Always the persuasive one of the brothers despite being a year younger, Duke got Carl to come out to practice and he got hooked quickly.
"He was real persistent," Carl said. "We had both been playing basketball for a bunch of our lives. I was already naturally strong. He said I had nothing to lose. It was something we could experience together. If we didn't like it, I could quit. ... He finally convinced me one day. I went out, ran around and enjoyed it, so I started playing."
But because Carl was already a senior in high school, he was an afterthought in a recruiting process. He was second-team all conference in his first year, but didn't get much attention from recruiters until his coach introduced him to San Jose State assistant Charles Nash.
San Jose State viewed him as a project with potential and offered him a scholarship despite his lack of experience. Carl was forced to play as a freshman because of a lack of depth for the Spartans and has developed each year.
Now as a junior, he is flourishing as evidenced by his three sacks and six tackles for loss last week against New Mexico State. That moved him into a tie for the lead nationally with 2.0 tackles for loss per game.
"What he's done this season thus far is certainly illustrative of the fact that he has come along physically," San Jose State coach Dick Tomey said. "He has become a very outstanding defensive lineman. The story on both of these young men is not so much football but what kind of people they are what kind of family the come from."
Carl's positive experience as a freshman with the Spartans paid off with his contributions on the field and by convincing Duke to follow his older brother to San Jose.
Duke had more options, having impressed recruiters during his two years of high school football. But San Jose State had something no other team could offer.
"My brother was not going to lie to me," Duke said. "He's going to tell me the good and the bad things about a school and a football program. I can't trust any one coach or recruiter more than I can trust my brother. I knew if he said he was comfortable here and liked it here, I would like it too."
Duke has been just as impressive after moving from safety to linebacker this season. His five interceptions are tied for the lead nationally and he has returned two for touchdowns the past two weeks against Utah State and New Mexico State.
The play of the Ihenacho brothers has the Spartans (5-2, 3-0 WAC) off to their best conference start since joining the WAC in 1996.
"Playing with a team like this one, everyone is so close it makes it feels like we all are brothers," Duke said.
There have been other notable sets of brother teammates in college football, from Lee Roy, Lucious and Dewey Selmon on the Oklahoma defensive line in the 1970s, to Bennie and Brian Blades at Miami in the '80s to Tiki and Ronde Barber at Virginia and Jason and Christian Peter at Nebraska in the '90s.
But according to San Jose State, the NCAA was unable to find any other set of brothers who led separate statistical categories at any point in a season.
"It's something really unique," Duke said. "The fact that we're brothers and we start on the same defense and lead in statistics, I think it magnifies the situation. If you take away the stats, I think it would still be as special as it is."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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