USC head coach Clay Helton offered up a strong endorsement earlier this week when he named Kenechi Udeze as the Trojans' defensive line coach.
“There are times in your career when you meet someone and just know that they are going to be a superstar in the profession,” Helton said in a statement released by the school. “Kenechi is that person. I was blown away by his attention to detail with technique and fundamentals in our recent bowl game preparation and in the interview process. Kenechi is a Trojan to the core, and his passion for USC is felt by all.”
A superstar in the profession.
That’s a tall order. But then again, when you look at the path that has brought Udeze to this point it’s hard to bet against the statement.
Udeze first came to the attention of the USC football program when he attended a summer camp prior to his senior year of high school. There were raw skills that were spotted by then-Trojans defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who also noted that Udeze weighed north of 350 pounds at the camp. Orgeron told Udeze that if he could get under 300 pounds, there would be a USC scholarship waiting for him. Udeze changed his diet on the spot and showed up a few months later in front of Orgeron while weighing in at 297 pounds. A scholarship was offered and quickly accepted.
As a redshirt freshman defensive end at USC, Udeze had nine tackles for loss and four sacks under first-year coach Pete Carroll. As a sophomore, he was the USC Defensive Lineman of the Year with 15 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. As a junior, Udeze was a consensus All-American who led the nation in sacks with 16.5 and had 26 tackles for loss. He also tied an NCAA career record with 14 career forced fumbles.
Carroll tried to get Udeze to stay for his senior season and a shot at the BCS title (the Trojans beat Oklahoma in the 2005 title game), but the lure of the NFL was too strong and Udeze declared for the 2004 NFL draft, where he was selected in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings with the No. 20 overall pick.
After starting in 47 of 51 games over the first four years of his career, Udeze was forced to retire as a player due to a leukemia diagnosis, one that has since gone into remission.
He went back to USC to get his degree in sociology in 2010 and then set out to learn the coaching profession with multiple NFL coaching internships and a year under Carroll as an assistant defensive line coach with the Seahawks. He returned to the USC football program in 2015 as an assistant strength and conditioning coach, and it was obvious upon his return that he was someone who commanded respect from the players and those he worked with. Udeze took his role with the strength and conditioning department seriously, even though it was known that he eventually wanted an opportunity to grow as a position coach to further his career.
That opportunity came with the Holiday Bowl practices and game against Wisconsin, when Udeze was promoted to defensive line coach after Helton fired previous DL coach Chris Wilson, among others. Udeze made a habit out of working with individual players after practices, teaching specific moves and techniques. After the bowl game, several former players spoke favorably of the job Udeze did and began to support him as the potential full-time DL coach. There was also talk of the Trojans making a run at Udeze’s former coach, Orgeron, and there were other names in the mix as well. But when it came down to it, Helton went with his thought that Udeze could potentially be something special.
The great USC teams of the past have usually featured a dominant presence at the defensive line coaching spot -- Orgeron and Marv Goux come to mind -- and there’s no telling yet if Udeze could live up to that kind of standard. But he’s getting a chance right away to show what he can do in recruiting, and he seems to have connected with elite recruits such as Jonathan Kongbo, the top-ranked defensive end in the ESPN Junior College 50, and he should serve as a mentor to Oluwole Betiku, an early enrollee defensive end who is currently the highest-rated recruit in USC's 2016 class.
Udeze will also serve as the unofficial Trojan bridge to the past, as the only former USC player on the staff. It’s not an absolute that you have to have a former player on staff, but it always helps to have that person who can pass along the traditions and standards that have made the USC program one of the blue bloods of college football. Goux taught Orgeron, who then taught Udeze. And now it’s Udeze’s turn in that role, and it’s one he will perform with great pride.
Time will tell if Udeze can fulfill the promise Helton is projecting for him; after all, it’s still a reality that he has yet to serve as a full-time defensive line coach in his career. But as far as credentials go, Udeze certainly brings a lot to the table.