When the New Orleans Saints entered Training Camp last week, one of the names being constantly mentioned on lists of "Players to Watch" was 2nd year defensive end David Onyemata, the former Canadian college Defensive MVP who possesses a ton of raw talent and athleticism, but essentially is still adjusting to the differences between Canadian and American football.
But after a week into Camp, this much has quickly become evident: Onyemata appears to be "ahead of the curve" in his development, in Year #2 of his young NFL career.
Following the crushing loss that the defensive line was dealt following the loss of veteran defensive end Nick Fairley due to a heart condition, there were some lingering doubts as to whether last year's 4th Round draft pick was ready to "step up" and help fill the role left vacant by Fairley's departure.
But with the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Onyemata running with the 1st team defense at the 1-technique / nose tackle spot next to Sheldon Rankins in the heart of the Saints defensive line in the past few Camp practices in full pads, it's become quite clear that Onyemata's development is right on schedule --- and then some.
With the rules of Canadian football being slightly different than the ones in the United States, last year in the Pre-Season against Patriots was the first time that Onyemata had actually ever lined up directly over (and not with a 1-yard cushion as they do in Canada) an offensive lineman in a football game at any level.
As in: the first time EVER in his entire life.
Onyemata is a native of Lagos, Nigeria, and didn't even arrive on the North American continent until he and the rest of his family immigrated to the western part of Canada in 2011; where he then decided to attend Manitoba.
In between classes, Onyemata quickly learned the game of football; and although the game in Canada is similar to the one played here, it’s also very different in a variety of ways -- most notably the scoring rules and the number of players (12 as opposed to 11 for the NFL) allowed on the field at one time.
Which when you think about it, makes Onyemata's apparent leap forward from essentially a "novice" at the sport of football as a rookie a year ago; to now just a few months later a player who may already be named a starter in only his 2nd year in the NFL, all the more remarkable.
Certainly, a lot of the credit for Onyemata's progression goes to new Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.
Nielsen, whom the team hired back in February from his previous job as the defensive line coach at North Carolina State; has made huge impact since taking over from former Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson -- who fell out of favor with Saints fans in the past few seasons because of the team's notable lack of a pass rush
Much in the very same manner that new linebackers coach Mike Nolan has had a huge impact on the Saints linebacker corps and Curtis "CJ" Johnson has done with the team's wide receiver group, Nielsen has quickly done the same for the Saints D-Line.
Nielsen, who played the defensive tackle position himself once upon a time at Southern Cal in the late 1990's and early 2000's, is a popular coach among players --- and a position coach who New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson said in his recent article a few months back, is an energetic, intense presence who will apparently take an active role on the practice field.
Nielsen has become well known for his "hands-on" approach to coaching and teaching players; which Erickson notes is the act of him personally and physically demonstrating technique, even if that means putting his hand "down in the dirt" to show a player how to come off the ball and execute a move.
That "hands on" approach to teaching players was something that observers say wasn't really embraced all that much previously by former 'old school' defensive line coach Bill Johnson.
It's obviously had an impact on Onyemata, who last year started off slow last year as a rookie but as the year progressed, still managed to to record the 5th-most snaps (393) among Saints D-Linemen, and had 18 total tackles (11 solo) in 16 games as part of the D-Line rotation last year with Fairley and Rankins.
Nielsen has been very pleased with Onyemata's development up to this point, and told NOLA.com / Times-Picayune beat writer Herbie Teope that its' Onyemata's understanding of how American football is played and the dedication required from him to play it, that's impressed him the most.
"His knowledge of the game has improved, his fundamentals improved," Nielsen said. "David is big, strong and he's tough. We're just going to keep going and the focus is just a few little things every day, and hopefully they'll show up the next day because we're emphasizing what we're focused on and working towards."
As the Saints practice later today in full pads after a much-needed day of rest yesterday, it will be interesting to see if Onyemata continues to line-up at the starting 1-Technique / nose tackle spot next to Rankins in the Saints base 4-3 alignment, where he apparently has supplanted 3rd year player Tyeler Davison.
But regardless of whether or not he remains the starter throughout Training Camp and into the Pre-Season games, or becomes a part of a rotation just like last year once the Saints begin the regular season next month against the Vikings in Minnesota, one thing has become evident in this first week of 2017 Saints Training Camp.
Which is that David Onyemata is "ahead of the curve" in Year #2, of his young NFL career.......