How Troy University Became An Unlikely Breeding Ground For Super Bowl Rushers
First it was Osi Umenyiora. Now, it's DeMarcus Ware and Mario Addison. How did a small school in southeastern Alabama turn out so much talent?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.
On Sunday, Troy University will solidify itself as one of the NFL's unlikeliest breeding grounds for Super Bowl pass rushers. It began nine years ago with Osi Umenyiora, the two-time Pro Bowler for the Giants who earned the first of two rings when New York upended the then-undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
That legacy is being cemented this year, with each side in Super Bowl 50 boasting a Troy Trojan. For Carolina, it's Mario Addison, who at the fourth stop of his professional career has metamorphosed from an undrafted free agent into his team's second-leading pass rusher. He's paced the Panthers' edge rushers this year with six quarterback takedowns. In Denver, DeMarcus Ware, too, is the No. 2 pass rusher, and remains the most accomplished player in Troy history. A NFL team of the 2000s selection, the 33-year-old Ware compiled 7.5 sacks this season and dominated the AFC Championship when he hit Tom Brady seven times.
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Not bad for a southeastern Alabama school whose enrollment is a smidgen under 7,000, and which only this year completed its 15th season of FBS football.
You can trace the pass-rushing roots back to 1997, when then-recruiting coordinator Mark Fleetwood looked down at an Auburn High School football game on a random Friday night, and spotted a nose guard whose hands belied his skill level. "He's from Nigeria," Bill McCall, the high school's head coach, told Fleetwood. "He's a goalkeeper, not a football player."
But Fleetwood was enamored with the big man's feel for the game, how adeptly he struck with his hands and the way he changed direction so sharply. This was Umenyiora, a 16-year-old senior with no scholarship offers to his name; he had only recently taken up the sport. When, weeks later, Trojan head coach Larry Blakeney informed Fleetwood that the team was short on defensive line prospects for the next recruiting cycle, Fleetwood's mind circled back to "that big kid up there at Auburn."
Soon enough, Umenyiora was a Trojan, and not long after his arrival on campus, a few minutes of goofing off before practice would fast-track his career.
"He was in a one-on-one pass rush drill," said Shelton Felton, Umenyiora's position-mate and roommate at Troy. "He took off, did two or three moves, and everyone was like 'Whoa.'... They moved him to end and the rest is history."
It seems so simple in retrospect. After all, Fleetwood says, Umenyiora was blessed with so many physical tools that "if we would have put him at tight end in his college career, he would have played tight end in the NFL. He could catch now and he could punt it about 60 yards and he could throw it about 50 or 60 yards."
Smaller schools than Troy have stumbled onto game-changing, or even era-defining, talents, but the Trojans' success has been sustained, and specialized. Since they joined the Division I-A ranks in 2001, 12 Trojans have been drafted by NFL teams; of those, five have been pass rushers—a remarkably high percentage. In addition to Umenyiora, Ware, and Addison (who went undrafted), there've been players like Chiefs fourth-rounder Cameron Sheffield and one-time Falcons fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Umenyiora was joined in his own class by defensive tackle Davern Williams, who excelled in school as an interior rusher.
According to Blakeney, who retired in 2014 after 23 years as head coach, much of it is the result of focusing resources.
"We always put a premium on that guy," he says. "We could teach them how to play the run more effectively than we can teach them some things about rushing the passer. There's natural ability that they overwhelm guys [with], just like Denver [did] over New England.... Most people are going to the passing game and you've got to put pressure on the passer with four rushers. Because you don't want to have to blitz and play man, and they'll wear you out."
Felton believes that it comes down to coaching. The position coach who moved Umenyiora over to end was Tracy Rocker, a college football Hall of Famer for Auburn in his playing days who now coaches at Georgia. With coaching stops at Auburn, Ole Miss, Arkansas, and the Tennessee Titans, he's regarded as among the best defensive line coaches in football. Mike Pelton, who succeeded Rocker, eventually moved moved on to Iowa State, Vanderbilt, Auburn and, now, Georgia Tech.
"Those guys would find diamonds in the rough, people that folks would say aren't Florida, Auburn, Alabama material," Felton says. "[The coaches] would give us a chance and we would prove them right."
Umenyiora was one such player: even though he rapidly developed into a force of nature in college, there are reasons why Troy was the only school after him. "When you sign a kid like that, you never know," Fleetwood says. "You cross your fingers and you hope like heck. But we weren't at Auburn and Georgia and Alabama and all of that. We were at Troy. We weren't going to get the kids that made a difference if you don't go out on a limb on a few of those."
Troy's strategy — and success — and is best epitomized by Ware. The same night he discovered Umenyiora, Fleetwood noticed something else as he stood atop that hill. The opposing team ran the Wing-T and on one play pitched the ball out wide. The play began like any other. It did not end that way because Ware, then a waifish junior without a true position, took off from the far hash, five yards behind the action, and ran the down the running on the other side of the field.
"I thought to myself—now, he's 6-foot-3, 195 pounds—'I don't really care what position he plays when he can run like that,'" Fleetwood recalls. "First thing, when we had [the recruiting] contact period that next year, I put Larry in the car, we went right in his home."
Like Umenyiora, Ware found himself in the position of not having any scholarship offers besides Troy. But it took a full year of pursuit for the school to land the future All-Pro, culminating with a phone call from a shopping mall in Montgomery, Alabama.
"The dead period had started and my phone rings, and it's from the mall," Fleetwood says. "He says 'Coach, it's DeMarcus, I'm at Montgomery Mall. I'm on a pay phone, Coach, but listen, I got to thinking about this recruiting and ya'll offered me and nobody else has. I told you I'd think about it. Well, there ain't nothing to think about! I'm coming.'... I said, 'Give me the number on that phone there, this phone booth. Sit right there and Coach Blakeney is going to call right back to confirm this.' He said OK. Sure enough, Larry called him and then called me back and said 'It's done.'"
The rest came together when he got on campus. "He didn't look like the RoboCop he does now," Felton says, and years of work were poured into his development. Ware grew an inch and packed on fifty pounds, while the likes of Rocker, Umenyiora and Felton all tutored him in the finer points rushing with his hand on the ground. But there were facets of his game that could not be taught. "He does a little spin like he's going inside and then he plants his foot and reverses back outside – that has to come from natural childbirth!" Blakeney laughs.
Luck plays a role, too, of course. That helps explain Addison, whom, Blakeney allows, Troy signed out of Northeast Mississippi Community College in 2008 because "we probably had a vacancy as much as anything." No amount of scouting could foretell his tenaciousness, the kind that allowed him withstand an injury and a redshirt to become a defensive focal point that racked up 15.5 tackles for loss in just 12 games his senior season. There was no way to know that he possessed the determination to withstand going undrafted, then being purged from three different organizations, only to break through in Carolina at age 27. "He surprised us a little bit with how hard he worked and how much it means to him," Blakeney says.
This week, Blakeney is in San Francisco for the Super Bowl. Together with Troy athletic director Jeremy McClain, they've gone to visit former pupils Ware and Addison. It's the second goodwill trip Blakeney has made this season; the first came during training camp, when he flew to Denver to spend time with Ware. "The university wanted me to go out there and treat it like a PR trip," Blakeney says of his Denver experience. "But it was a buddy trip for us."
It's always personal for Blakeney. He's tickled at the idea of the program he shepherded for nearly a quarter-century now being the home of Super Bowl pass rushers. But he mostly dodges questions about the game itself. He's more concerned that everyone knows how "bubbly" Addison is, how "smart" Ware is, how "eloquent" Umenyiora is. "I've been real proud," he says.
Felton, now a head coach himself at Crisp High School in Cordele, Georgia, will be watching his old teammate Ware on Sunday. He, too, is proud of his old friends' accomplishments, as much for them as for the pride it brings to their alma mater.
"It makes you respect and look at those small schools and say, 'Small schools can play with these big man schools,'" he says. "You can say, 'Yeah, you may have gone to the University of Miami or University of Florida, but can you block an Osi Umenyiora? Can you block a DeMarcus Ware?' We're going to show you, man. There's players everywhere."
Even, and now especially, at a small university in southeastern Alabama.