From the time he started playing organized football as a freshman at Towson High, Azubuike Ukandu had one goal in mind — to someday play at Maryland.
Even when he was virtually ignored by every Football Bowl Subdivision team, including the Terps, Ukandu (pronounced yoo-CAN-doo) never gave up on his dream.
While he had several offers from Football Championship Subdivision teams, including Princeton, the undersized defensive lineman was steadfast.
"Princeton came recruiting me, sent a whole bunch of letters saying they were interested in me, but I wasn't really interested in playing for an Ivy League school," Ukandu recalled Wednesday. "I felt like I was talented enough to play at a higher level than that."
It took Ukandu three years to get a scholarship and a half of his fourth, as a redshirt junior last season, to make what he called a "sizeable contribution" to the defense.
After getting his undergraduate degree last spring and now playing as a graduate student, the 6-foot-1, 307-pound Ukandu is proving that his longtime dream was more realistic than many might have believed.
Going into Saturday's home game against Michigan State at Maryland Stadium, Ukandu is coming off his most impressive performance as a Terp. He finished with a team- and career-high 12 tackles last week against Minnesota.
The only downside was that it came in a 31-10 loss, the second straight for Maryland after a 4-0 start.
"I felt I played fairly decent, but at the end of the day, it's about wins and losses," Ukandu said. "I think I played pretty well. I could always play better."
First-year coach DJ Durkin said it took him a while to look at the positive performances against Minnesota, though what Ukandu did in his first collegiate start was at or near the top of the list.
Durkin said that the number of tackles Ukandu made was atypical for a nose guard.
"Zubie played a tremendous game," Durkin said, referencing Ukandu's nickname. "Usually those guys are not in on that many plays. His growth has been great. What we have to do as we've done at other times is have more guys play at that level and consistently play at that level."
Said defensive coordinator Andy Buh, "Zubie's been pretty solid all year long. They [Minnesota] were running the ball more in his area and we always say if the ball's in your gap or on your hat [helmet], you either make it or you don't, and Zubie made them. He made a lot of them. We call them critical situations. He got himself in a lot of critical situations and he made most of them."
Ukandu can look back at the second half of last season as a turning point in his career.
A starter in eight games, Ukandu had a stretch of three weeks that began when he made four tackles against Iowa, five against Michigan State and six against Wisconsin.
Though the Terps lost all three games, Ukandu said it proved that his decision to play on the FBS level was the right one. Even his father, Madu, had hoped his son would play at Princeton.
"When you play well against good competition, it always shows that you can play against anybody and that gives you the confidence to go against anybody, any day, any time," Ukandu said. "That was really a confidence-booster last year and I just continue to roll with it."
Ukandu said he inherited his work ethic — as well as his desire to get a good education — from his parents.
His father arrived in the United States in 1980 to study accounting at Coppin State and settled in Baltimore after getting his master's in finance from Morgan State in 1985. His mother, Grace, came in 1994, five years after his parents were married, and is now a nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"They showed me that anything is possible," Ukandu said Wednesday. "Coming over here, they had no previous family. They had to get it from the ground up. That showed me how to grind and get whatever I put my mind to. Just work for it. Keep on pushing."
Ukandu's younger brother, Chibuzo, played at Gilman and was recruited to play offensive line at Navy, but stopped playing last spring after suffering a concussion. Ukandu said that his brother was hesitant to tell him.
"I didn't even know he wasn't playing still until this summer, because he didn't tell me anything about it," Ukandu said.
What his brother is going through, and what he knows he will likely encounter when his college career ends, goes back to what was instilled long ago by his parents when he was allowed to try out for the high school team as long as he kept up his grades.
"I maintained that through college, because when I got here, they said the same things about football," Ukandu said. "At the end of the day, football's not going to last you the rest of your life — your education will."
In Igbo, his family's native language, Azubuike (pronounced Azu-BEEK-a) means "having a strong family at your back," Grace Ukandu said.
Her older son can appreciate the appropriateness regarding his teammates during an up-and-down season.
"We all strongly support each [other]," Ukandu said. "...Always make sure that if the next person is down, you get them up and keep the train rolling because you never want to leave somebody behind because stronger as one unit that we are separated apart."