PROVO — Senior JJ Nwigwe’s BYU football journey began on the offensive line, traversed through the tight end position and now is winding up on the defensive line.
His current stop on the D-line was prompted by academics and a chance to get more of an opportunity to play.
“I needed more time for school. I’m really happy that the coaches allowed me to have another year to redshirt so I could graduate in December (with a degree in economics). That's what my decision was based off of," Nwigwe said. "The coaches felt like I’d be a better fit on defense."
Amid a peripatetic career, the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder from Rockwall, Texas, appears to have found a home on the defensive line, where he has added more depth at that position this spring.
“He’s really good there. Coach (Ilaisa) Tuiaki saw something in him that can help our defense. He understands the game. His football IQ is really high,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “He understands how to play the position. He’s not a guy that has to learn the same thing twice. He’s grasping it. We knew that when he moved from O-line to tight end to defensive end."
After spending a couple of seasons on the offensive line, Nwigwe switched to tight end before the 2017 season.
“I couldn’t gain the weight and I got moved to tight end," he said.
While his blocking ability at tight end was solid, he struggled with his receiving.
“All my friends knew I wasn’t the best pass-catcher. I tried. Blocking, I miss that part, trying to get after the defensive ends,” Nwigwe said. “Now I am one. It was a fun time."
Nwigwe played in only four games at tight end last season, allowing him to take a redshirt. He spent the remainder of the season on the scout team as a defensive lineman.
“They all took me in with open arms and started helping me from day one,” he said of the D-line. “The first week, I had no clue what I was doing. I was still wired on the offense. I knew the offense so I was where I needed to be. But my pass-rush was all weird. It’s come a way since then. I’ve gotten a little bit better since the scout team. It’s getting better but I’m not where I need to be yet.”
"Having that year off and working with the scout team has been really helpful for him,” Sitake said.
Still, this isn’t Nwigwe’s first experience on defense.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to play defense. In high school, I moved to the offensive side of the ball,” Nwigwe said. “Since I’ve played defense before, going to defense wasn’t that hard. I’m more aggressive than I was on the offensive side of the ball.”
What’s the hardest part of becoming a D-lineman?
“Getting off blocks and initiating blocks,” he said. “In my head, I still want to engage, like I’m on offense. I need to start shedding them a little bit better.”
Tuiaki, BYU’s defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, is happy to have Nwigwe in the rotation.
“JJ is super strong, super athletic, playing a new position. He hasn’t been with us for a true offseason,” he said. “So he’s learning a lot, understanding a little bit more on the defensive side of the ball. As far as his physicality and what he brings, he’s definitely going to be a guy for us.”
Nwigwe is learning a lot from teammates like Devin Kaufusi, Trajan Pili and Uriah Leiataua.
“All those guys are really good. I’m trying to get to their level so there’s no drop-off. Everybody’s been having a great spring ball,” he said. “Trajan’s coming back, Devin’s a freak of nature. Uriah is a great pass-rusher. Everybody in that room brings a lot to the defense.”
To Tuiaki, switching Nwigwe to the defense makes a lot of sense.1 comment on this story
“He has great length. He wasn’t playing much on the offensive line. They moved him to tight end and he wasn’t playing much there,” he said. “Instead of burning his year, we redshirted him and we felt like we could bring him to our side and give him a shot to see what he can do. He’s doing a good job.”
Nwigwe is looking to make the most of his final season in Provo.
"I’m grateful for the coaching staff allowing me to come back for one more year," he said, "and play with my team one more time.”