For Saints fans last season, the "sweep" of their favorite team's NFC South division rival Carolina Panthers in both regular season games and then in the opening Wild Card round of the NFC Playoffs, was particularly sweet; and it's a feat that no doubt will be among the many things that faithful followers of the Black and Gold will associate with last year's 2017 NFC South Division Championship-winning squad for New Orleans.
However, that Wild Card game at the Superdome that took place earlier this year back on January 7th, will be remembered for something else: which was when then-2nd year Saints D-Lineman David Onyemata nearly CRUSHED Panthers QB Cam Newton on a hit that was so violent, that it caused Carolina's star signal-caller to even drop to a knee before gingerly heading to the sidelines.
And it was at that very moment, that the rest of the Pro Football world was introduced to the player who though he seemed to develop slowly at first; is now becoming "a force to be reckoned with" for the Saints defensive line in what is now about to be his 3rd NFL season in 2018.
That memorable hit from nearly 5 months ago was a the clearest indication yet that the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Onyemata (pronounced own-yay-MAH-ta) is developing into the potentially dominant interior player that the Saints believed that he could when the team drafted the former Canadian collegiate defensive MVP in the 4th Round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
"That was a big-time hit," fellow Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins would say later to reporters following the game's conclusion. "It was in a crunch-time situation when we needed it."
With the rules of Canadian football being slightly different than the ones in the United States, it actually wasn't until nearly 2 years ago in an August 2016 Pre-Season contest against the Patriots in New England; that was the first time 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 actually was a soccer fan as a kid; and he 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 the University of Manitoba in the Western part of Canada.
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 being a "novice" at the sport of football as a rookie two years ago; now to a player who is poised to become a starter in the interior D-Line of an NFC Super Bowl contender (your New Orleans Saints) in only his 3rd 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 of 2017 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 had fallen 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.
And while Nielsen's primary concern for the next several months will likely be the development of this year's 2018 top pick Marcus Davenport, it can't be understated enough just what a sensational job that he has done with Onyemata.
Nielsen has been very pleased with Onyemata's development up to this point, and told then-NOLA.com / Times-Picayune beat writer and now NFL.com writer Herbie Teope last season 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."
Obviously based on that big-time hit against the Panthers in the Wild Card game a few months ago and on the final practice of yesterday's OTA's — where he lined up as the starting "3-Technique" defensive tackle in the interior of the Saints D-Line — it's probably fair to say that things have gone as planned thus far for Onyemata's continuing progression.
"If you're going to build a D-tackle, they're going to look like [Onyemata] at the end of the day," said Rankins, the team's 1st-round pick in that same year, to reporters after the Wild Card win over the Panthers.
"With his explosiveness, with his power, his ability to move, his agility, being able to tackle guys outside the box. Those are things you can't teach. I look forward to not only playing with him but helping him reach every goal, every dream that he wants to playing defensive tackle and in the NFL."
That was the same sentiment expressed by Saints head coach Sean Payton; who told the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Onyemata: "We saw growth last year while he was playing. With the limited amount of snaps he had — maybe high school through college — we knew when we drafted him that we were getting someone that we felt had a high ceiling."
"He has continued to improve on his technique, recognizing certain combination blocks and what the offense is trying to do. He is certainly going to be in that rotation and a guy that we are counting on."
For Onyemata, he knows that he still has much to learn, but yet it's apparent that he is growing more and more comfortable with his role in New Orleans and looks forward to the rest of what has become a quickly-blossoming NFL career in a span of a little over 2 years.
"My first year was pretty much getting used to my helmet and shoulder pads and kind of just not even practicing, just doing things on the side for a whole year," Onyemata said to the on-rush of reporters gathered around his locker following the 31-26 Playoff win at the Superdome .
"You watch a couple games, and once you've been around the game for a year, you start to understand what should be going on."
It goes without saying that now in what will be his 3rd NFL season, that he definitely "gets it" — and he knows now exactly what it takes, to become a respected player by his peers at the professional level.