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Air Force's Jacob Onyechi set for huge year

August 25, 2016 Updated: August 25, 2016 at 10:06 pm
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photo - Air Force linebacker Jacob Onyechi reacts after recovering a fumble off a punt during the first half of the NCAA Mountain West Championship football game against San Diego State Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Air Force linebacker Jacob Onyechi reacts after recovering a fumble off a punt during the first half of the NCAA Mountain West Championship football game against San Diego State Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) 

For the first time in his Air Force career, Jacob Onyechi enters a season encumbered by nothing.

When he began his first season, the "spur" linebacker was still several months from his 18th birthday. So youth was a factor.

When he was a sophomore, the Falcons thrust him into a larger role, but he lacked experience.

As a junior, he was still sharing time at his position with senior Dexter Walker, and Onyechi didn't feel entirely comfortable in that situation.

"I've worked my way up to now," Onyechi said. "So it's going to be really cool to see what I can do when I'm 100 percent confident in myself."

In some respects, Onyechi is that quiet coworker who finally breaks out of their shell at a holiday party, revealing a personality no one knew was there. The hope for Air Force is that his senior year is one long party.

"He's definitely going to show up this year," fellow linebacker Haji Dunn said.

His coaches notice a difference. Defensive coordinator Steve Russ said the 6-foot-1, 210-pound native of Sugar Land, Texas, has added a "more physical presence to his game" through about 10 pounds of added strength.

Outside linebackers coach Matt Weikert said Onyechi's deep experience - he's played in 26 games over the past three years, starting eight of those games and making 32 tackles - has given him a strong enough handle on the responsibilities of outside linebackers that the team would be comfortable lining him up at either position.

But while the spot occupied by Dunn is more of the pass-rushing, havoc-causing position, the one Onyechi plays requires a varied skill set and was created with a player like him in mind.

On one play he'll be asked to serve as a defensive back and cover a slot receiver or tight end. On the next he'll help in the pass game. On the next he'll blitz. Having someone do everything allows the Falcons to disguise their looks and eliminates the need to substitute different personnel for each situation.

"He was one of the guys we wanted to play the position," Russ said. "It's a hybrid safety, and Jacob is so athletic."

A letter winner in basketball and football in high school, Onyechi was a track standout who clocked a 21.61-second 200-meter time. That's only 1.11 seconds off the Olympic qualifying standard. This is not to suggest Onyechi could have been an Olympian had he stuck with sprinting, but he clearly has elite speed.

"As far as genetics go, his length and speed are things that help him out tremendously when it comes to playing man-to-man coverage," Weikert said. "Even when you take on a tight end or rush the passer, with those long arms - he's got like a 6-foot-8 wingspan - you're able to get some separation when you're rushing the passer."

With these tools, it might seem Onyechi by now should already be one of the more recognizable players on the team, part of the group that includes mainstays like Weston Steelhammer, Jalen Robinette and Jacobi Owens.

That he's not there yet is the product of those easily explainable issues listed earlier.

Yes, his parents started him early in school. But here he is, nine months from graduating from the Air Force Academy as a mechanical engineering major. So they were right, he was ready.

Yes, the Falcons made him split time over the past two years. But Dexter Walker was a three-year starter with equally impressive speed; not exactly the type of player you cast aside.

It was always something. Now, there's nothing in his way except embracing the role of veteran.

"I think I've been growing into that role of being more vocal, being a leader, coaching up the younger guys and kind of paying it forward a little bit," Onyechi said.

And what if it's not in his personality to be that vocal leader?

"It's not. But sometimes you've got to rise to the occasion," he said. "I know people are looking up to me, so I'm doing that to the best of my ability."

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