Ndukwe Fighting For Starting Spot

Chinedum Ndukwe

Sometimes change is a good thing. Sophomore strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe wasn't so sure that would be the case when Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham approached him about a change. The 6-2, 223-pound Powell, Ohio native reported to Notre Dame as a receiver and had never played defense, but Ndukwe says he accepted the change to help out his team, and he's glad he did.

Chinedum Ndukwe remembers the conversation he had with Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham very well. He also remembers the disappointment.

"I don't know any other way to take it," said Ndukwe when asked if he felt like Willingham didn't think he could make it at wide receiver. "That's kind of how I felt.

"Coach Willingham told me that it wasn't that way at all. He said he thought I could've been a really good receiver, but there's a lot of need for safeties on this team. I'm trying to help the team and I'm trying to play and he said this might be a way to get me on the field earlier.

"Still, I wasn't sure how I'd like moving. I'd always thought of myself as a receiver and only wanted to play receiver. I didn't like it at first, but I like it a lot now."

The transition seemed almost effortless for Ndukwe to an outsider. Towards the end of spring football, he was running with the first string defense on occasion. Ndukwe said it was hardly effortless.

"It was really difficult in the spring just getting the whole defensive scheme down," Ndukwe said. "I was constantly in the wrong spot and thinking too much. It's really hard to get the concept down when you've never done that before.

"Now that I've got it down, the hardest thing is probably is to understand exactly what they're talking about and then play. Hopefully I'll be able to get it down and soon and just be an athlete."

While many were surprised to hear that Ndukwe was fighting for a starting spot after only four months at the position, the sophomore says he wasn't surprised at all.

"I'm a competitive person," Ndukwe said. "I like to compete in everything. It didn't surprise me. I came over here thinking I was going to play. I still think I'm going to be the one. You can't have any other type of attitude."

After a full eight months into the transition, the former wide receiver says he feels comfortable playing safety and is fighting for a starting spot on the Irish defense.

"I have good days and bad days like anyone else," he said. "I enjoy hitting better than being hit and you get to decide how hard you want to go."

"It kind of switches every day," Ndukwe said when asked if he's running with the first team. "We're just trying to get a feel for a good lineup. One day I'll go with the first team then it will be Freddie (Parish) or Lionel (Bolen). We're just rotating right now. Hopefully, pretty soon, we'll see where we are on the depth chart."

Irish coach Tyrone Willingham says he's been impressed with how quickly Ndukwe has made the switch and that the sophomore is very much in the race for the starting spot at strong safety.

"What we saw in Chinedum is a bright young man that is very physical," Willingham said. "He's given us every indication that he'll be that way as a safety for us. He's very much in the thick of the competition to line up (as a starter) when we play BYU and we like that."

Usually one of the hardest transitions for any offensive player moving to defense would be learning to play physical. Ndukwe is already known as one of the biggest hitters in the Irish secondary.

"Sometimes I don't finish plays like I should and I get upset," Ndukwe said when asked why he enjoys the big hits. "I kind of use that for the next couple of plays. There's definitely a different mindset you have to take when playing defense. You've got to be a little bit hardnosed."

Willingham also said he wasn't surprised to see Ndukwe knocking heads right away in his first action at safety.

"That was part of his success as a wide receiver," Willingham said of Ndukwe's physical play. "We knew that the transition would be the same at some point. Usually you get tied up just a little bit because of all the mental things so you can't see it initially. But he was able to maintain it in the transition."

The Powell, Ohio native reported to Notre Dame with fellow teammate and quarterback, Brady Quinn. The two have been good friends for many years and Ndukwe says competing against his good friend has been a lot of fun—even if he isn't winning all the battles just yet.

"I have one on Brady," Ndukwe said when asked how many times he's picked off Quinn. "I didn't let him know about it--maybe next year.

Maybe when I'm starting and I know what I'm doing better I can talk some smack. I've definitely got burned a couple of times, more than once, so he's probably got the upper hand right now. Give me a couple of months and I'll be getting in his ear."

Ndukwe also competes against his former fellow wide receivers. He says junior Maurice Stovall gives him the most fits in coverage.

"I'd definitely say Maurice (Stovall) is the hardest dude to cover," he said. "He's going to have a really good year. Both he and Rhema (McKnight) are very difficult to cover. But Mo, he's like 240 and runs like a 4.4 so it's pretty difficult to cover him."

So who's taken the biggest Ndukwe hit so far?

"I'd say Chase (Anastasio), he wasn't looking," Ndukwe said. "I kind of took him out a little bit. He got me back, though. He got me on a block down field."

As for the defensive backs, Ndukwe says he thinks they're going to surprise people this year.

"I think we're where we need to be," he said. "We're not there yet and we need to keep making progress. A lot of people think our secondary is going to be the weakest part of our defense this year and I think we can make it one of our strengths."

Ndukwe will find out his fate as a starter in the next few days. The always-smiling Ndukwe said he'd accept whatever the coaches' think is best for the team.

"I can only do what I can do," Ndukwe said. "You can only give it all and that's all you have control over. I'll leave it up to coach Wilks and coach Baer. They have more coaching experience than I've been alive so I'll have to accept what they say. It will be hard, but I know after any one play, I could be in there so I'll just keep on working."

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