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Breaking Out

Sept. 27, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Jeremiah Attaochu looks nothing like Bronko Nagurski, or rather he looks not at all like the man in photos of a certain charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame around whom the definition of rugged might well be designed.

Yet they’re linked, and it fits.

The Football Writers Association of American connected the two on Tuesday. The FWAA tabbed Georgia Tech’s sophomore outside linebacker as its Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week after he rattled several Tar Heels to their bones in Saturday’s 35-28 win over UNC.

Nagurski did that kind of thing regularly.

You need to move past the fact that he achieved his legend chiefly as a ball carrier for the Chicago Bears from 1930-37 (and a very big one at that, particularly for that era). Simply put, he routinely trucked people.

Before that, he’d been a fantastic defensive tackle at the University of Minnesota, and in a 1984 interview with Sports Illustrated he said that if he were playing the modern game (in his younger body), he’d have probably been a linebacker.

So there’s a kinship of sorts.

Plus, Attaochu (uh-taw-choo), like Nagurski, came to the U.S. from another country. He was born in Canada, of Polish-Ukranian descent.

Attaochu came from Washington D.C., after being born and raised in Nigeria to age eight. That’s when he, two brothers, a sister and his mother joined his father, who’d been educated in the U.S. Another brother has since been born.

More to the point of similarities, Nagurski stood out physically relative to his football peers, and played that way.

That would be Attaochu, finally.

At 6-feet-3, and 235 well-chiseled pounds, he’s quite something so see up close, especially in uniform. He has a near-perfect build for the outside linebacker position in a defense coordinated by Al Groh.

On Saturday he rose to play to the sum of his parts.

His nine tackles, three sacks, forced fumble and pass breakup (which led to an interception) did not shock head coach Paul Johnson. The fact that it took a while for the breakout game to come . . . that was a surprise.

Nobody should react that way if this young man eventually plays on Sundays.

“He’s a very talented young man,” Johnson said. “He had a great spring practice, and really, up until the Carolina game had not played with production the way I thought he would.”

Attaochu came to the game a little later than most, picking it up as a freshman at Archbishop Carroll Catholic High School.

He was a quick study, although as the recruiting hounds began to sniff around a couple years later, Tech was not on his radar. Groh, however, was.

Having made official visits to Syracuse (he was interested in the school’s famed mass communications program), Maryland, Kansas State and Illinois, he had one official recruit visit left to make. He’d also already been unofficially — which is to say on his nickel — to Virginia, where Groh was head coach.

Soon after Groh was fired, Johnson hired him at Tech.

Then, “I wasn’t even considering Georgia Tech,” Attaochu said. “When he got the job here, I had one more visit to take, and he called my high school coach, and my high school coach talked to me about it, and I talked to coach Groh about it.”

Attaochu made that visit to Tech, but don’t leap to the conclusion that he is at Tech just because Groh is here. In his view, it’s not quite that simple. Attaochu is on The Flats because he knew Groh, and the coach made him aware of the school. So perhaps it’s not quite a direct link.

“I’m here because of Georgia Tech. When I chose schools, people around me encouraged me not to pick a school because of a coach; pick because of the school, the education, the city you want to be in . . . and other factors,” Attaochu explained. “The coach can leave.”

That said, Attaochu also said, “I liked the football aspect, the coaches, including coach Groh. I knew it would be an honor to play for him.”

There is a special spirit in Attaochu. The young man works; he really attacks every undertaking. He speaks at a quick clip, with admirable conviction. He knows what he believes and lives it. There will be more later this week in Sting Daily about him when some detail of the Yellow Jackets’ chemistry is offered.

His coaches believe in him.

“He’s growing,” Johnson said. “I think that he’s going to be better because he has a lot of ability, plays the game really hard . . . and I think he has fun out there.”

It was fun watching Attaochu play Saturday, when his third sack ended North Carolina’s bid to tie the game. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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