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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Living the dream

Fendi Onobun
Fendi Onobun

Five years ago, the Arizona basketball team was riddled with injuries. A team built around Hassan Adams and Mustafa Shakur suddenly had more players on the injury list than the bench, so head coach Lute Olson lifted the redshirt from raw freshman forward Fendi Onobun.

No one knew at the time that the move would spark an NFL career.

“”When coach Olson lifted my redshirt, it actually enabled me to play football at Houston during my fifth year,”” Onobun said.

And so began the unique career of Onobun, a one-time Arizona Wildcat forward and a one-time Houston Cougar tight end who’s about become an NFL player.

Onobun was a marginal basketball player at UA, only seeing playing time during his senior season when other forwards were in foul trouble. The talk began back then that the 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward should consider playing tight end, although, at the time, it fell on deaf ears.

“”My teammates used to give me a hard time and said I was playing the wrong sport, but I never took them seriously,”” Onobun said. “”I was told to give it a shot and see what happens, so I said ‘Sure, why not.’ It’s not that I didn’t take it seriously, it was more like ‘it couldn’t hurt.'””

So Onobun worked out at Arizona football’s 2009 Pro Day and received some favorable results. Scouts and coaches told him that he had potential in football, not only because of his ideal body size but also because of his athleticism. The decision to give football a shot was an easy one, but deciding where to play football weighed on him.

Especially considering the depth chart at Arizona.

“”I could’ve played at Arizona, but at the time, shoot, Rob Gronkowski was the No. 1 tight end in the country,”” said Onobun with a laugh. “”If you’ve got Rob Gronkowski then it’s an opportunity to learn from one of the best at what he does, but I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity to play, and if I stayed at Arizona that might not have been possible.””

Onobun instead chose to return home and attend the University of Houston. In the end, it was a pretty easy decision.

“”I had been away from Houston for a long time, and I definitely wanted to be home with my family,”” Onobun said. “”That definitely was a big key to coming to Houston, to spend time with my family.””

The system fit, too. Houston had a pass-happy offense with statistical phenomenon Case Keenum at quarterback, and the previous season featured a lot of plays designed around the tight end.

“”Case is a great talent and what’s even better is that he’s a better person,”” Onobun said. “”He was more than willing to help me out with the playbook. We spent a lot of time in the film room, and just catching the football from Case Keenum — the kid is a great quarterback. He really helped me a lot.””

Keenum couldn’t help Onobun with the nagging headaches that the former basketball player was suffering through during practice.

“”At first, the very first week I actually had a headache from wearing my helmet because I wasn’t used to having that big old helmet on my head,”” Onobun said. “”I remember anytime I wasn’t on the field I’d take it off or let it sit on top of my head because I was having such headaches.””

The headaches were the least of his problems.

The Cougars changed philosophies and went with more multiple receiver sets than formations that included a tight end, and Onobun suffered a high ankle sprain in the second week of summer two-a-days.

The injury was disappointing, but it was a blessing in disguise. After all, Onobun had never really played football before.

“”I played in seventh grade, but my dad took me out because he didn’t want me to get hurt because basketball was my first sport,”” Onobun said.

Less time on the field meant more time in the film room. Onobun learned the ins and outs of football — how to read defenses, how to block, how to run routes — and got familiar with the terminology by running “”mental reps.””

Seven NFL coaches just buckled at the knees after hearing a player willingly took mental reps.

“”Definitely had to spend a lot of time in the film room,”” Onobun said. “”We watched film every day on top of film on top of film on top of film. I was on the board learning the terminology, everything. The hardest thing was learning how to run, as far as running through defenses, learning to pick your spots.””

Onobun eventually got onto the field and hauled in two catches for 33 yards and a touchdown, while blocking two kicks.

The limited stats, with his size and athleticism, were enough to convince NFL scouts and coaches that he was ready.

Onobun ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day, a remarkable time for a tight end.

Need a scouting report on Onobun? Just ask him.

“”A lot of teams are interested in my upside,”” he said. “”As far as my athletic ability and my strength, those are two things that can’t be taught. And what’s even better is my character. I’m a high-character person and haven’t really had any legal troubles. I’m a smart kid, I’m a hard-worker, and that’s what coaches what to see.””

These assets will give Onobun a shot in the NFL. He said that he has heard he could be drafted as early as the fifth round, but even if he isn’t drafted, he will certainly be signed as an undrafted free agent.

Regardless of how he makes an NFL team, even Onobun has a hard time believing his opportunity.

“”It’s a dream come true,”” Onobun said. “”In my case, I always dreamed of having my name scrolling down the bottom of the screen in the NBA Draft, but now there’s a possibility to see my name scrolling on the bottom of the screen for the NFL Draft.

“”I was talking to my Dad last night, and we were just like ‘Wow, who would have thought?’ This is absolutely a blessing that I’m so thankful for,”” he added. “”There aren’t too may guys that can go from collegiate basketball at a premier college, and then go play Division I football, and then have the opportunity to go play in the NFL.””

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