After playing a leading role in UNLV’s third win of the 2022 college football season, linebacker Austin Ajiake became the first Rebels player to be named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week since 2019.
The fifth-year senior has been around the program through some extremely low periods. It’s no surprise that program and player are both ascending into the national spotlight at the same time.
Austin Ajiake leading a Rebels’ resurgence in the 2022 college football season
Paradise, Nevada, has been anything but a football nirvana for the UNLV Rebels in recent years. They’ve been something of a college football whipping boy, a guaranteed win on another team’s schedule.
But in the third year under former Oregon offensive mastermind Marcus Arroyo, there’s been a seismic shift in the city of the turnover slot machine. The Rebels are rolling on a winning streak, and a player who suffered through those losses is leading these Rebel-rousers into uncharted territory.
In an upbeat and uplifting interaction with the media in the wake of a win over Utah State that was seen as a shock to the media but came as no shock to those within the walls of the program, Arroyo was effusive in his praise of linebacker and leader Ajiake.
“What Austin has done as a person and a player for this program, hats off to him…He’s a great influence on our football team,” Arroyo continued with his trademark intensity. “He’s an upstanding guy who’s got a lot of character. He’s got a low ego and a ton of output. There’s a respect that everybody has for him and that’s coming out on the field. His preparation is leading to a lot of success, and when that happens you get a lot of confidence. It’s not false confidence.”
The Rebels are playing with a swagger usually saved for a millionaire freshly minted at one of Las Vegas’ many casinos. They’re playing with a belief befitting a team used to consistently coming away with a comfortable victory.
These are untravelled waters for the majority of the UNLV team, but they’re traversing them triumphantly thanks to their leading linebacker, who is helping change the national perception of this Rebels team.
Ajiake’s off-field influence is leading to on-field results
Ajiake has been at UNLV since 2018. The former two-star recruit landed with the Rebels out of Bellarmine Prep, where he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Offensive Player.
While he’s grown into an imposing inside linebacker for UNLV, he played outside at Bellarmine. Meanwhile, he racked up 1,168 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns at RB, putting his 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay speed to good use on the football field.
His first three seasons were far from successful. During that time, Ajiake tallied just 25 tackles, with none of the behind the line of scrimmage production that usually draws player attention even on teams with a losing record.
Meanwhile, UNLV struggled to just eight wins between 2018 and 2020, including a winless campaign two years ago where the then-junior linebacker struggled to six total tackles.
Then a switch flicked for Ajiake and the Rebels. Although they only won two games, it was two more than the previous season. And, there were defeats in one-score games that could have told a completely different story had they been on the winning side of those narrow defeats.
In just eight games, Ajiake tallied 74 tackles, including a first tackle for loss and a pass breakup that showcased his ability to impact the game in multiple ways. While his ascent into national attention is just happening now, people inside UNLV were beginning to notice.
“It started last year,” stated coach Arroyo during his media address this week. “People weren’t watching that much, but you saw Austin start to grow at the position.”
Football and family combine to drive Ajiake to greatness
There’s no denying that Ajiake’s on-field contributions are helping drive UNLV to success that hasn’t been seen in the program in recent seasons. His interception against Utah State — his second of the season and career — was one of six turnovers forced by the ferocious Rebels defense.
Arroyo spoke about his off-field contributions, including a commitment to the weight room that has paid serious dividends and is held up as an example to his team.
But another off-field development, one that took place two years ago, has helped the UNLV linebacker focus on greatness. The birth of daughter Eliana during the disruption of the global pandemic helped bring a different sense of perspective to the life of the young Rebels linebacker.
“My world changed a lot when I had my daughter,” Ajiake told Fox5 Reb Zone’s Paloma Villicoma during the 2021 season. “My life changed in a good way. I’ve had to mature in certain areas, I’ve had to be to focus on what’s important.”
One of five siblings raised by Tammy and Matthew Ajiake in California, Ajiake is used to a large family environment. He now has his own little family with his fiancé Rhonda and Eliana, and he’s embraced that fatherly role.
Not only is he embracing it, but he’s also developed into something of a fatherly figure in a UNLV locker room that is binding together like one big family.
It’s no surprise that he’s chasing a Master’s in urban leadership while leading UNLV on the football field. From family through the classroom to the football field, Ajiake is intelligent, committed, and driven.
He’s matured, developed, and grown through the hardest times that the Rebels have had to endure. Now, he’s taking those lessons learned and helping lead this UNLV team towards something special, something unexpected by the outside world watching in.
“I’m one of the guys who’s been here the longest,” Ajiake reflected during his media availability this week. “I’ve seen some of the lowest lows. This season, being able to win some games, it goes to show that when you put the work in the results will follow. It’s a reminder to never lose focus of the goal at hand and the mission. Whether it looks bad, or feels unaccomplishable, whether it feels like no-one believes in us, keep your head down and work. Good things will happen.”
Good things are happening at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. With a growing feeling of belonging, of confidence, the Rebels are drawing national attention and helping unite a community.
Coach Arroyo called for every man, woman, and child to pack Allegiant Stadium for UNLV’s Friday night clash with New Mexico, creating a family environment around the program. That effort is being led off and on the field by linebacker Ajiake, one of their own who is leading the Rebs revolution.