Dan Buckner was a senior for Allen High School last fall and was one of the nation’s elite receivers. He was a one-time Notre Dame prospect who chose to stay in-state and play for the Texas Longhorns. The Irish are looking to make up for the loss of Buckner last fall by landing rising senior Uzoma Nwachukwu. Hopefully this year they will have more success with an Allen High receiver.
Other than the fact they were both wide receivers at Allen High School, there aren’t many comparisons with Nwachukwu and Buckner on the field. They are very different from each other. Buckner was a big kid who stood at 6-foot-4 and weighed over 200 pounds. Nwachukwu stands about 6 feet and weighs in at 186 pounds. He has a thin build but is built very well. He’s a cut young man and plays very strong. The Allen standout won’t ever be a huge guy but he is built well enough and strong enough to be an every down player at the next level.
I’ll be honest with you. I love Uzoma’s athletic ability and his potential as a play-maker, but my favorite part about his game has nothing to do with him catching footballs. This young man can flat out block!! I always say that blocking is about effort. Nwachukwu gives tremendous effort as a blocker in both the pass game and the run game. There were several clips I saw where he was blocking downfield after another receiver caught the pass. He fires off the ball and gets into defenders quickly and aggressively as a run blocker. I’ve read that Nwachukwu benches over 300 pounds. After watching him block I have no doubt he has that kind of strength. He’s only 186 pounds but drives guys back and to the ground. When he cracks he just levels defenders. You can tell he takes great pride in his blocking as well. I love that about this young man.
As much as I love his blocking ability, it likely isn’t the reason Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Kansas, Colorado, and Wisconsin are among a large contingent of schools hoping to add the Allen High standout to their recruiting classes. The main reason for that is his athletic ability and potential as a playmaker. Nwachukwu is listed with 4.38 speed and at times you can see that show up. As he develops I’d like to see him be able to use that speed all the time. Right now he shows it when he is told to run vertical routes, and at times with the ball in his hands, but he isn’t consistent in turning on his jets.
At times he doesn’t appear as fast as he is due to his shorter steps, but as you see him pull away from people you realize he is eating up a lot of ground. Those shorter, choppier steps are one of the reasons he is successful as a slot receiver. He uses his speed and quickness to get off the line quickly and his footwork allows him to make quick moves against defenders, work the short and intermediate zones, and makes him ideal to catch quick game throws as well as the bubble screen.
His strength also makes him a threat from the slot as he isn’t all that easy to redirect or jam. Nwachukwu also has very good balance. His strength and balance make him very hard to tackle. If you are a defensive back, you better hit him square and wrap up if you want to bring him down by yourself. This kind of power isn’t found very often in players who are a bit smaller, as Nwachukwu is. Another aspect that makes Nwachukwu hard to bring down is the fact he is able to spin with tacklers after he gets hit. More often than not rather than going down he actually spins off the tackle and keeps running.
You will never hear me talk about a high school receiver and not criticize his technique. Even the most well coached high school players will have work to be done. But I rather enjoy watching young players who show on film that they have a really good grasp of the techniques of the wide receiver position. That’s what I saw when I watched Nwachukwu’s film. Overall he has a good pre-snap stance. I talk about chest over knee, knees over feet with a nice forward lean and Nwachukwu has this type of stance. He is a little flat-footed with his lead foot, which causes him to have to hitch before he gets going which slows him down a bit. This should be easy to coach out of him.
I like how Nwachukwu stays tight on his stem off the line of scrimmage. Often times with slot players you’ll see them go wide to avoid defenders, but I don’t see that here. Nwachukwu plants quickly on his short to intermediate routes which I like. He needs to learn to sinks his hips a bit more on his cuts. If he sinks his hips it requires that he stay with his forward lean rather than stand up and lean back, which is what he does right now. It’s not a major flaw but it is something he will need to work out. The reason is as you lift up you are telling the defensive back that you are about to make some kind of break. You don’t want to give defensive backs that kind of tell. He also tends to drift a bit after he makes his cut. I have found this tends to be a natural thing for receivers to do. You have to teach them to be aggressive to the football so this isn’t something I would expect Nwachukwu to have mastered at this point in his career.
While he gets off the ball very quickly Nwachukwu needs work on his initial route. He tends to make his cuts too quickly. He needs to do a better job of attacking the leverage of the defenders, eat up their cushion, get them to commit in some way, and then make his cut. (If that doesn’t make sense ask me on the boards and I will get into that terminology even further) Right now he doesn’t take good angles off the ball and has a tendency to make his cuts before the defender has come out of his pedal. This will hurt him at times in college. Having said that understand this is a relatively common thing for high school players so I don’t consider this a problem.
In time he will learn these finer points of route running. I’d also like to see Nwachukwu be sharper on his out cuts. His footwork is good, and he explodes out of his out cut breaks. Those are the hardest things to teach on the out cut, but once he makes his cut he tends to drift a bit deeper than he should. Nwachukwu also has a tendency to slow down as he looks back to the football on deeper routes. As with other things I’ve critiqued with him this is something I find often in younger receivers. It’s another thing that I’m confident would be easy to coach out of him.
For a younger player Nwachukwu really does a good job working against the zone. He has a very good idea on how to get open against the zone. That’s a big-time requirement for a slot receiver. He also doesn’t dance around a lot, which is something I like in a slot receiver. He’s shifty but he doesn’t waste motion. He finds his opening and he hits it. Instead of dancing around he attacks the defenders and either runs by them, runs through them, or makes one cut to make them miss. With the ball in his hands he is a north-south runner which is yet another aspect I look for in a slot receiver.
As we’ve seen the last three years the Irish love to run the bubble screen. It’s the throw where the quarterback takes one step and throws to the slot receiver who is running a quick swing route. The outside receiver is blocking on the perimeter. With Jeff Samardzija on campus this play was a big one for the Irish. If Nwachukwu comes to Notre Dame he will thrive in this area as well. He understands how this play is supposed to work. At the snap he gets good depth and width, he makes the clean catch, he attacks the perimeter quickly, and he gets up field quickly. He forces the defenders to chase him to the sidelines. Once the receiver slows down or starts to come back inside he has allowed the defense to get in position to make the play. This play is at its best when you keep the inside defenders in a chase position to the sideline. Nwachukwu does this and he does it well. He doesn’t waste any motion with unnecessary cuts. He is all about speed and getting downfield on this route. That is exactly what you want to see from your receivers.
I wouldn’t say Nwachukwu has great hands but they are very solid. He seems to catch the ball consistently and away from his body, which is all you can ask for. The reason I don’t say his hands are great is that he doesn’t show naturally smooth hands. They can be a bit stiff at times and he stabs at the ball a bit much. It’s a minor critique and one that likely won’t keep him from being an effective pass catcher.
The 6-foot, 186-pound speedster does have very good concentration as a receiver. He isn’t afraid to go over the middle and doesn’t get skittish in traffic. When the ball is in the air you can see his focus on the football and not on the defenders. I also like how Nwachukwu catches the football away from his body. I like guys who know how to extend their hands and don’t let the ball come into their body. There are times when body catches are appropriate but that is one habit that can be hard to break.
When the ball is thrown up or high Nwachukwu is able to make tough catches. He shows quick and smooth hips that allow him to snatch balls that are thrown behind him. He also shows very good bounce off the ground. He needs to be more aggressive to the football on his stop routes, when he’s in traffic, and when the ball is underthrown. What I’m talking about is that he lets the ball come to him. What I would like to see is him attacking the football a bit more. “Go meet the football” is what I taught my players.
Right now the Allen High standout is a pure slot receiver. That is how his coaches have utilized him up to this point in his career. But he has the skill set to be more than just a pure slot receiver. With his speed, athletic ability, and strength I see him as being a player who can also be utilized to be a coverage beater. That kind of versatility makes Nwachukwu a very good prospect. As a slot player he reminds me of David Grimes in many ways but he brings much more size and athletic ability to the table than Grimes does. I thought it would be hard for the Irish coaches to land a big-time wide receiver in this class. I still feel that way. What I’ve talked about when discussing the needs at receiver I mention the fact they need a player who isn’t like the majority of the players at the position. Notre Dame has landed some outstanding receiver prospects, but with the exception of Golden Tate, they have all been bigger players. Nwachukwu would be a very different type of player who would complement their current cast of characters very well.