This Saturday, defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu will lead the James Madison front into the toughest test of their inaugural season in the Sun Belt. Fresh off a bye week and a 2-0 start, the former FCS powerhouse will take on Appalachian State in a game that should receive significant national attention. Like the Dukes themselves, Ukwu is shining at the FBS level. At the end of a difficult college journey, he’s blossoming into a player well worth waiting for.
Isaac Ukwu: His story and his development
“Isaac, he’s got a story,” James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti began as he detailed the defense that could define the Dukes’ first season at the FBS level. After tallying 16.5 tackles for loss last season, while adding nine sacks and two forced fumbles, Ukwu is a key part of that defensive unit. His production, his performances, and his place amongst his peers speak of a six-year veteran who is battle-scarred, matured, and aged by minutes on the field.
But that isn’t the story for the Maryland native and Wise High School graduate. Six years removed from winning a state championship with a perfect 14-0 record, Ukwu has just 16 college football starts to his name. His story is one of perseverance, perspective, and pitting mental fortitude against physical difficulty. The James Madison defensive end has a story, and it’s one that is only getting better as it reaches its college football conclusion.
“He injured his knee two years ago,” continued Cignetti during the Sun Belt media days. “Then he injured his other knee. Last year was the first time he got to play football and he’s been around five years. He hasn’t even scratched his potential yet. We’re looking for Isaac to do big things for us this year.”
Two games into the season, and Ukwu is already blossoming into that big play threat at the FBS level that Cignetti envisaged in the preseason. While their toughest games are ahead of them — starting with this Saturday against Sun Belt powerhouse Appalachian State — the James Madison STUD has already been impactful with two tackles for loss, one sack, and two pass breakups. He’s a 6’3″, 261 pounds, pass rush wrecking ball.
Ukwu has been on a long journey
“Just because you haven’t been in a situation before, doesn’t mean you won’t succeed.”
That was Ukwu’s message to the younger players on this James Madison roster ahead of their Week 1 win over Middle Tennessee State. The Dukes were written off as the sixth-best team in the Sun Belt East by some outlets prior to the season. Their defensive dynamo’s positive mentality can be infectious in a locker room. It’s an energy that has powered him to this point on a journey that could have crushed some individuals.
“It’s been a long journey.”
Clad in a suit in the Sun Belt studio during media days, almost dwarfing teammate Percy Agyei-Obese, who is no small human at 6’0″ and 213 pounds, Ukwu takes you on a journey not of self-pity or sorrow but rather of how adversity can shape your future success. He offers perspective into what molds the man who looks to make a mockery out of offensive linemen and make life miserable for quarterbacks.
“When you have to sit out two seasons in a row, and something that you love doing is taken away from you, it kind of puts everything in perspective. It really put a chip on my shoulder, and let me know how important football was to me. I play every practice, every scrimmage like it’s my last, that’s how last season turned out so good for me.”
Playing with a chip on his shoulder
It’s no surprise to hear that Ukwu has a chip on his shoulder. Despite being a highly productive high school player with multiple all-conference and all-state honors at a school that finished in the USA Today Top 25 his senior year, the James Madison defensive end was spurned by his hometown team. Maryland showed interest but never an offer.
Despite a laundry list of offers from academic institutes that showcase his high level of intelligence — he’s enrolled in JMU’s cyber intelligence program — Ukwu headed to the FCS with the Dukes. The negative connotation associated with playing — or not playing at the level — added to the chip on his shoulder with his pre-Week 1 comments particularly pertinent to this weekend’s game where James Madison is given only a 30.5% chance of victory by ESPN’s Football Power Index.
“People like to downplay the level of play at the FCS level. So, I think it’s a good opportunity to showcase how good the competition level was and how good we really are in the grand scheme of college football.”
That chip on his shoulder is apparent when Ukwu steps foot on the football field. The James Madison defensive end epitomizes his team’s “physicality and attacking the football” philosophy. The 6’3″, 261-pound defensive lineman showcases the ability to convert speed to power, has several weapons in his pass-rush toolbox already, including push-pull and swim moves, and is relentless in his pursuit of the ball.
An absolute monster who is blossoming at the right time
Putting the technical terminology to one side, he’s an absolute monster. If, as Cignetti referenced, he’s only scratching the surface, that’s a terrifying prospect for not just Sun Belt quarterbacks but signal callers across the nation. When you watch Ukwu line up and do battle, it’s not hard to see where his influences come from.
“One player I really liked when I first came in was Yannick Ngakoue,” was Ukwu’s response when asked about his influences during Sun Belt media days. “His cross-chop move is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on a football field. More recently, Maxx Crosby. I like his tenacity and his motor. He just keeps going, over and over again.”
The tenacity displayed by Crosby during his Eastern Michigan and now-Las Vegas Raiders career is one shared by Ukwu on the football field. Yet, the James Madison product matches that tenacity off the field. After suffering season-ending knee injuries in consecutive seasons, no one would have thought any less of him for calling it a career. Instead, the Dukes’ No. 99 flipped his number to 0, an act of symbolism he described ahead of his breakout 2021 season.
“It represents the start of a new chapter. No. 99 was the torn ACL guy and No. 0 is the guy who is back and ready to produce. I just feel like it’s a way to let go of the past and focus on the future.”
The long-term future could see Ukwu emerge as a potential 2023 NFL Draft prospect for James Madison. However, the immediate future is focused on upsetting the established Sun Belt apple cart. A win over Appalachian State would put the nation on alert to what is being built in Harrisonburg. To be in with a fighting shot, the Dukes will have to tame a wild Mountaineers offense.
Thankfully, the James Madison defensive effort will be led by the “old guy” who took a “long journey” to get here but who is blossoming into a player well worth waiting for.