Commentary

Amukamara embraces defensive side

He aspired to play running back, but cornerback skills will carry him to the NFL

Updated: March 18, 2011, 10:06 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The man who is revered in a Nigerian village and is on the cusp of NFL millions eats at a Cracker Barrel off Interstate 80. It's not exactly Prince Amukamara's demographic -- the place is hopping with senior citizens just after 11 o'clock on a Friday morning -- and country music twangs over the speakers as he maneuvers his way around porcelain trinkets and a rack of Statler Brothers CDs. But he likes it here. Amukamara orders without glancing at the menu: Momma's pancakes, scrambled eggs, turkey sausage. "I always get the same thing," he says.

In a 45-minute span, between two glasses of ice water and two ill-advised slatherings of maple syrup on meat, exactly zero people approach Amukamara for an autograph. Maybe in Cornhuskers territory, they're getting used to having defensive heroes roaming around town. A year ago, Ndamukong Suh went No. 2 overall in the NFL draft, and in between terrorizing quarterbacks in Detroit, the 305-pound defensive tackle made occasional trips back to his alma mater to say hey.

[+] EnlargePrince Amukamara
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesPrince Amukamara, who played cornerback at Nebraska, is projected to be a top 10 NFL draft pick.

Every once in a while, Amukamara texts his former Nebraska teammate for advice, but he probably doesn't need any help at this point. The senior cornerback is projected to be a top-10 pick in next month's NFL draft, a thought that seemed unthinkable three years ago when he wanted to transfer because of a position change, and unfathomable to family members who knew very little about football.

He's different from the last great thing to come from Nebraska. Suh could scare a bus full of schoolchildren with his steely glare and was so methodically focused on the draft that he spoke to nary a reporter last winter; Amukamara is affable, approachable and rarely stops smiling. He whizzed through one of his last major tests, impressing scouts at pro day last week, and now it's time to reflect on where he's been and where he's going.

"I'm a day-to-day guy," Amukamara says. "I just like to think about the moment. I think that's what keeps me humble."

Perhaps Romanus Amukamara can put it in better perspective. He came to America from Nigeria in 1980. He joined the Army and worked two jobs to support his family. Soccer was his sport back home, and the first time his son played football, Romanus was scared. His accent is still thick, his memories are still vivid.

"Watching him … sometimes I start wondering how he came to be my son," Romanus says.

"This is the American dream for us."

The family

The Amukamaras were blessed six times, with six healthy babies, and each name had a story. Princess was born first, her name predetermined because of the family's royal bloodlines. Prince came next, and then Precious.

"I named her Precious because my children were so precious to me," Romanus said. "Then we got Promise. My kids never had any problems going to the hospital or anything, and I said, 'This is the work of God. I will promise God forever to stay loyal, and will continue serving him because of all the good things he has done.'"

Two more daughters followed, Peace and Passionate. Prince jokes that growing up with five sisters was great because it meant he never had to do any chores. He got his blazing speed from his mother, Christie, a former police officer in Nigeria who ran professionally in her home country. She goes back to visit at least once a year, and has stressed that her American-born children know about their heritage.

Romanus arrived in America in 1980 on a student visa, and later became a U.S. citizen and joined the army. Christie followed him to the states in 1988, and the family eventually moved from New Jersey to warmer climes in Glendale, Ariz. Nigeria seems distant to the Amukamaras' only son. He has spent much of his life around strip malls, basketball courts and FieldTurf. Here's what he knows. That his great-grandfather was king of a village in Nigeria, and had 56 wives. That the last time he went to Nigeria, in 2001, he got sick from the mosquitoes and food and lost 20 pounds.

[+] EnlargePrince Amukamara
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAmukamara showed his speed at the NFL Combine. He ran his first 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds and his second in 4.44 seconds.

"We have a house there," Prince said. "They don't treat me like royalty, but we're treated with respect. People are extra-nice to us. It's kind of creepy, but kind of good at the same time.

"They don't bow down and drop to their knees, but they'll shake our hand and give us a head nod. Or some of them might be even afraid to say hi to us because they think we're so different, especially because we live in the United States."

Sometimes, he could do without the royal references, and the name. Opposing teams used to taunt him with chants of PRINNNNCESSSSSS.

He usually quieted them with a jaw-dropping play. He also was the jokester of the family, and occasionally surprised his parents and siblings. Romanus and Christie worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat, which meant Prince didn't see them much until his final years of high school. On Saturdays, he could've done a lot of things, and probably would've preferred to goof off. He earned a scholarship to take classes at a local junior college, and eventually amassed 24 credits while he was still in high school. He didn't even tell his parents about it at first. Prince was always preparing himself.

He led Apollo High School to three state championships in basketball, and won sprint titles in track. When draftniks questioned Amukamara's speed this past winter, it made him chuckle. Didn't they know he turned in the best 100 and 200 times in the state of Arizona? Didn't they know what he used to do?

Amukamara's true love, his passion, was playing running back. He scored nearly 50 touchdowns in his final two years at Apollo, ran for 3,389 yards, averaged 11.9 a pop. His last game, a playoff loss in overtime, Amukamara ran for 366 yards and four touchdowns.

Oh, and he played in the secondary, too, but defense wasn't the topper to Amukamara's football résumé; just filler.

When he stood in Memorial Stadium at the Nebraska-Colorado game on a cold November day in 2006, a starstruck teenager, Amukamara was stoked.

In a few months, he'd be in Lincoln competing for a job at running back. In a few months, everything would change.

The position

To this day, Amukamara isn't exactly sure what happened between November and June. He assumed he was hoodwinked. He remembers meeting with former NU running backs coach Randy Jordan, who during that fall weekend was "hyping me up," Amukamara said. He remembers arriving for summer workouts in 2007 and being directed to a meeting room with "Coach Elmo," otherwise known as Phil Elmassian. The secondary coach.

"I'm like, 'What happened?'" Amukamara said. "They just told me the room I was in, and that's all she wrote."

In fairness, Amukamara concedes that he was recruited as an athlete, which meant he played multiple positions. "But no one ever told me, 'If you come here, you're playing defensive back.' I was under the impression I was playing running back," he said.

It was Bill Callahan's final year at Nebraska, and Callahan, an offensive-minded coach who's now an assistant with the New York Jets, wasn't budging on the Amukamara decision. So the freshman wanted out. He chose not to redshirt in 2007, opting to get a taste of college football through special-teams work. He figured he'd transfer after '07, and use his redshirt then.

Then Callahan was fired, and the Bo Pelini back-to-defense era began. Pelini sat down with Amukamara during his first days at Nebraska, and Prince let a year's worth of frustrations fly. He asked if it was OK to move to offense. Pelini said yes. But he also told him that he'd coached in the NFL, and saw Amukamara as a prototype NFL defensive back. He said Amukamara would be playing a long time if he played defense. He said he'd eventually make a lot of money.

"I kind of took that," Amukamara said, "with a grain of salt."

But eventually, it started to sink in. He talked to the team chaplain. He kept chatting with Pelini and then-secondary coach Marvin Sanders. Their words started to make sense. The world is full of 6-foot-1, 205-pound running backs, Sanders would tell him. But a 6-foot-1 cornerback with his speed was a rare commodity.

The lightbulb moment, both Sanders and Amukamara agree, came in 2009 at Baylor. He had three breakups and an interception. All week in practice, he'd heard about how the Cornhuskers would possibly struggle against Baylor's speedy receivers.

"There was a little doubt in his mind going into that game," Sanders said. "Because he was still fairly young.

"Well, after the game, Prince came up to me and said, 'Coach, why'd you lie to us? You hyped all week how fast and good those receivers were, and you made us nervous. And I felt like I could run with anybody.' And I said, 'Prince, it's because you can.'"

From that point on, Amukamara became a devoted student. He wanted to break down every tape and study every top corner in the Big 12. Sanders started calling him a student of the game. Amukamara had five interceptions as a junior, and was named a team captain in the summer of 2010.

His numbers dipped this past season -- Amukamara had no interceptions -- but Sanders credits that to teams becoming aware of him. His most heavily scrutinized game no doubt came in late October at Oklahoma State. Justin Blackmon -- who eventually won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver -- beat him deep twice in the second quarter, burning him for 116 yards. At halftime, Amukamara was angry and ready for another chance. He held Blackmon to a 3-yard catch until the final 90 seconds, when a 51-41 Cornhusker victory was in the bag.

Amukamara had 13 pass breakups in 2010 and held his opponents to 18 completions in 52 attempts against him. He was named an All-American and was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. In December, he graduated with a degree in sociology. He did it in just seven semesters at Nebraska.

"I'm excited for that young man," Sanders said. "I feel like a proud parent, and I know Coach Pelini feels the same way.

"He always has a smile on his face. He's a very respectful young man. He's a Christian. He doesn't drink. He's got so many good characteristics. You know, I have a daughter, and there's not many guys you can say that you'd let them date your daughter in college. But he's one you have full trust in because he's that good of a young man."

The future

He is happy he was wrong. He is grateful for his friends, and the words of the team chaplain, who once told him that God's plan isn't always the same as his plan. It's funny how things work out. One of Amukamara's best friends at Nebraska is Roy Helu Jr., the running back who got all those carries instead of Amukamara.

He trained with Helu over the winter, and watched the beatings he took over the course of four years. He doesn't envy Helu a bit.

He is approaching the draft with a healthy dose of enthusiasm and naivete, which is probably good. Things change quickly. He doesn't think much about the NFL lockout, or sit around digesting mock drafts. After his pro day last week in Lincoln, Amukamara didn't even bother getting on the Internet and checking out any reviews.

"He can play press coverage, or he can play off the man," said former Cowboys exec Gil Brandt, an NFL Network analyst who has followed Amukamara. "He's got everything you need to be a good player."

A good defensive player in the NFL. And in America, that's close to being royalty.

"I'm very happy playing defense," Amukamara said. "I've only really played [corner] two years. I feel like I have a lot of upside, a lot more potential to grow. That just makes me more and more hungry to learn."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.