Not all of you may know this, but I don't just live in Germany, I am actually a German. And as such it gives me great pleasure to introduce the newest member of our Dallas Cowboys family, linebacker Mark Nzeocha, a fellow German.
When the Cowboys drafted Nzeocha with the 236th pick of the seventh round, the 25-year old linebacker became the fifth German currently active in the NFL, joining Björn Werner (Colts), Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots), Markus Kuhn (Giants) und Kasim Edebali (Saints). And if Nzeocha hadn't suffered an ACL tear in October last year, he might have been picked even higher.
Nzeocha, who has Nigerian roots, grew up in the municipality of Neusitz, which is right next to the small Bavarian village of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a picturesque medieval town of 11,000 inhabitants that's a popular destination for tourists from around the world.
As a 13-year old he first started playing flag football with the Franken Knights, an American football team in Rothenburg, and joined their junior football team in 2006, where he played safety. Two years later, Nzeocha was nominated to the German Junior National Team, with which he went on to win the the European Junior Championships in 2008.
In 2009, he was a member of the German National Team that participated in the 2009 Junior World Championships in Canton, Ohio, where Nzeocha was named to the all-tournament team. College scouts took notice of him, ultimately resulting in a scholarship offer at Wyoming.
But the transition from club football in Europe to Division I football at Wyoming was steep. Blessed with extraordinary athleticism, Nzeocha had no difficulty with the physical side of the game, but found that he had to adjust to a game that was far more complex than anything he had experienced in Germany. Nzeocha alternated between the safety and linebacker spots in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but when he settled on the linebacker spot, and with two seasons of college ball under his belt, things began to click.
Nzeocha finished his junior season with 101 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, and really became a force on the defense in 2014. He notched 60 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 5 PBUs and 2 forced fumbles in seven games before a torn ACL put an end to his senior season.
Nzeocha's sudden versatility doesn't end on the stat sheet. The senior also serves as a jack of all trades for the Cowboys, playing the strongside linebacker position in base sets and shifting over to the middle linebacker spot in nickel packages.
When the defense leaves the field, Nzeocha stays on it. He covers kickoffs and punts. He's on the field goal coverage team as well.
Whereas Nzeocha once struggled to comprehend the subtleties of one position, he is now making an impact at several.
"I've definitely gotten better," Nzeocha said. "I just started playing at the nickel MIKE position a couple weeks into fall camp, so it was kind of late. But I feel like the transition went really well. Every game, it's getting better. I'm really starting to get the hang of it."
While at Wyoming, he didn't put his time to waste. Nzeocha majored in finance, earning a 3.41 grade point average. And despite still recovering from his ACL tear, Nzeocha put up spectacular numbers at his Pro Day
|6' 2"||232||33"||10"||4.52||1.56||24||39||10' 11"||6.92||4.30||140.7||95.3|
Nzeocha's SPARQ score of 140.7 is the second highest of all linebackers in this draft class, and that certainly warrants drafting him, as rabblerousr explained in his scouting profile of Nzeocha in April.
The seventh round, after all, is an ideal time to take a flyer on a guy with evident upside. His profile - athletic, rangey, run-and-hit three-down linebacker - is a superb scheme fit. If Nzeocha gets some more football under his belt and develops better instincts, he could well prove to be a late-round steal.
The Cowboys of course are aware both of his athleticism and his relative newness to the game, as Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News reports.
"One of the real concerns with our evaluation of him right from the outset was trying to get our arms around not playing American football as much as the other guys have," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "You have some concerns about maybe his instincts, his naturalness for the game, but he is a very athletic guy, and ironically, he demonstrates a lot of instinct."
"He is very good in space, very good on special teams, catches the ball and really makes a lot of plays on the ball. [He is] coming off of an ACL [injury], but he worked out very well in April, so we got our arms around his health and felt really good about taking him there."
The pro game will be another steep learning curve for Nzeocha, but with his track record and with his athleticism, there's a good chance he can carve out a niche even in a very, very crowded linebacker room.