Playing for an aggressive SEC defense is no small feat for any college player, let alone someone who picked up the game less than three years ago.
Having grown up in Nigeria and England, Vanderbilt defensive end Caleb Azubike was, to say the least, unfamiliar with the American version of football when he came to the States.
“I came over here wanting to play soccer and had to learn a whole new word for the sport I always called ‘football,’” Azubike said. “When I first got here, I thought the game of (American) football was actually a sport that wanted to be like soccer but couldn’t. I didn’t really know what to think; I was kind of frustrated. I was perplexed at how it was called ‘football,’ but people rarely kicked the ball.”
After playing soccer for a season in the U.S., however, coaches eventually convinced Azubike to give football a shot.
His love for the game came instantly.
Furthermore, the skill set that he gained from playing striker in soccer easily translated to a position on the defensive line.
“My soccer background has everything to do with football, which is one thing that I’m thankful for,” Azubike said. “There aren’t many different skills that you develop in soccer that aren’t used in football. A lot of the footwork drills are the same. Having good footwork and playing defensive lineman — everything you do has to do with your feet, your hands and having good foot-eye coordination.
“That foot-eye coordination, knowing where your feet are and where your eyes should be in connection to whomever you’re playing, whomever is in front of you and behind you, is helpful.”
Azubike makes use of not only his vast array of sports knowledge, but also his cultured background when playing football. His time in Nigeria developed him into a player who reaches victory on the field, fighting six seconds at a time.
“Back there (in Nigeria), things are different,” he said. “You have to fight for what you get. There, the mentality is that the strongest survive. That’s how I got the mentality that I have now. Everything’s a fight for me. I want to be first. I want to finish first. I want to be the best at whatever I’m doing. Back there that is the mentality that everyone fights for whatever opportunity or experience they wanted, trying to get the best out of life. There were no wasted experiences.”
The defensive end has definitely fought for experience during his time at Vanderbilt. Azubike is looking to make a big impact for the Commodores heading into 2013. As a true freshman last season, he saw action in all 13 games, playing more snaps than any other Vanderbilt first-year player and accounting for 15 solo tackles, four sacks and two fumble recoveries. In his new position of leadership, Azubike insists that his time on the field last year has relieved any pressure.
“I had guys on the team that were helping me from a mental standpoint to get my game to the level it needed to be,” he said. “Really, in that respect, it doesn’t put any pressure on me, it actually relieves some. If I didn’t last year and came into this season trying to play, I would be stressed out not knowing how to handle the large crowds, the noise, stuff like that. Last year helped me tremendously to be where I am, being able to play and not having anything of that nature holding me back. I’m free.”
Azubike furthermore attributes his freedom on the field to the fact that he does not set personal football goals. While he brings the Nigerian fight with him, he realizes that there is validity in the saying “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”
“I don’t set individual goals, I set team goals,” he said. “I want my team to win the SEC championship foremost, then the individual goals come after that. Right now I’m just focused on getting my team to a major stage.”
His lack of individual goals stops at the football field, however. Majoring in medicine, health and society major with a minor in financial accounting, Azubike hopes to take his newfound love of football professionally but would be equally satisfied with another professional route.
“Of course I want to go pro in the NFL,” he said, “but if I don’t, I have my powerful degree to fall back on.”
Azubike wants the student body to know that “student” comes first in “student-athlete” for a reason. Despite his nicknames “El Diablo” and the “Nigerian Nightmare” and the fact that he sported menacing greenish-yellow contacts in Thursday’s season opener, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Azubike assures that his on-field persona is nothing like his off-field personalit
“I’m really outgoing and shy at the same time,” he said. “Before anyone gets to know me, I’m really quiet a lot and fall back. I don’t draw much attention. Once people get to know me, and I get to hang out a lot with people, they tend to think I’m outgoing. I’m personable. If you approach me, I’ll gladly speak or talk with whomever it is.”