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Flames Feature: Student of the Game Leads by Example
Editorial Note: This story served as the Flames Illustrated football game day program senior feature story for Liberty's home game against Richmond on Oct. 4. Chima Uzowihe is Liberty's most experienced defensive lineman, having started 19 consecutive games for the Flames. The junior is tied for fifth in the Big South with 3.5 sacks and is tied for the team lead with 5.5 tackles for a loss in 2014.
For the average freshman NCAA football player, a redshirt year is the norm. Incoming players need time to adjust to the speed of the game, time to learn a new playbook and reps upon reps upon reps of practice before they are ready to take the field for their team.
Not so with Chima Uzowihe, though. The defensive end made a rare, immediate impact on the Flames defensive unit from the first day he set foot on Liberty Mountain.
"For him to step in as a true freshman and be able to contribute to what we do, that doesn't happen a lot," defensive line coach Vantz Singletary said, shaking his head. "Most guys take a redshirt year and have to take many reps to get things right. Chima's not a high-rep kind of a kid. He gets it right the first time."
During his first two seasons at Liberty, Uzowihe and Liberty's defensive line has helped the Flames be a top 20 ranked defensive unit. Liberty finished the 2012 season ranked No. 15 in the country in total defense (314.7 yards allowed per game) and No. 9 in 2013 (313.9).
The Flames have also ranked among the national leaders in rushing defense with Uzowihe's quiet leadership. In 2012, Liberty ranked No. 24 in rushing defense (126.1 yards allowed per game), while ranking No. 15 in the country be allowing only 12 rushing touchdowns and in red zone defense (66.7 conversation percentage) in 2013.
Uzowihe competed in eight games as a true freshman and posted an impressive 13 tackles on the season, including four tackles for loss and two sacks. It was during last season's sophomore campaign, though, that Uzowihe truly emerged as a linchpin.
Starting all 12 games, Uzowihe recorded 43 tackles (20 solo, 23 assisted), led his team and ranked second in the Big South in sacks (7) and posted 9.0 tackles for loss. He was one of three Flames to both force and recover a fumble, one of three to block a kick and ranked third on the team in pass breakups. His performance earned him Big South all-conference first team and Virginia Sports Information Directors (VaSID) all-state second team honors.
In just five games this season, he is on pace to surpass his own accomplishments once again. He has recorded 18 tackles (10 unassisted, eight assisted), 3.5 tackles for 20 yards of loss, including 2.5 sacks for 13, forced one fumble and recovered another.
The unusual ease of transition and speed of success Uzowihe has experienced can be credited to his equally singular background and demeanor.
Raised in the tradition of Texas football, the Lamar High School graduate was exposed early and often to the intricacies of the game. He first played defensive line as a high school freshman, under the watchful eyes of a coaching staff Singletary referred to as "collegiate-quality." There, Uzowihe clicked with his position.
"I really started playing in ninth grade, and there were a few times that I made plays and was like, hey — I think I really can do this! I think this might be for me," Uzowihe recalled with a smile.
He applied himself to learning the position well, down to the smallest details.
"There's a lot more to [defensive line] than people think," he explained. "A lot of people think defensive linemen are dumb. But they don't understand that there's a lot more to it. You have to think forward to be able to go through progressions."
"He makes his presence known by paying attention to the details and being a student of the game," Singletary said. "He's a sponge. He really soaks it all up. One of the great assets he has is that he's a great listener and really pays attention to detail. There are not many things that distract him. He has the ability to really lock in and take care of business."
With position knowledge and overall game smarts beyond his years, Uzowihe entered the Liberty program with a distinct leg up on others new to the college game.
"The environment I came from was great," Uzowihe remarked. "Coming, here the technique, the skill sets and things like that were faster; but I was ready. As far as general strength, I came in just as strong as some of the guys already on the team. The technique that I was taught in high school has helped a lot. The [stadium] excitement doesn't bother me because I'm used to having so many fans watching me play."
It doesn't hurt that for all his ability and experience, Uzowihe approaches his sport with humility and hard work.
"For a guy who's always been able to go out and make a lot of noise on the field, he is quiet," Singletary chuckled.
"Yeah, I don't really talk much," Uzowihe grinned, "but I try to lead by example. I just keep working. God gave me the ability to be pretty quick and smart as a defensive lineman, so I try to use that to my advantage and put in the hard work as well."
It's just another way that Uzowihe proves an anomaly; but by all stat sheets and appearances, his rarity is working for him. As Liberty continues their 2014 campaign, they will rely heavily on the defensive lineman to continue stepping up and succeeding.
It's a big role for Uzowihe in his third year with the Flames; but given his deep roots in his position and sport, as well as an all-too unique combination of talent and humility, it's really no surprise.
By Ryley Rush, freelance writer for Liberty Athletics