When Maryland named Keith Dudzinski its defensive coordinator and shifted to the 4-3 defense, defensive tackle Azubuike Ukandu saw his opening to make an impact along the defensive line.
The junior from Towson, and a former walk-on, played in the same alignment during his high school career, and when the Terps installed the defensive scheme after three seasons in the 3-4, it was a natural fit for him. He earned the backup spot behind sophomore David Shaw after preseason camp, and when Shaw was lost for the season to an elbow injury, he was elevated to the starting lineup.
Ukandu has four tackles and a sack in four games this season, and his coaches and teammates have taken notice of his play in the trenches.
"He's a fireplug in there," Dudzinski said Wednesday. "He's strong. He plays with his hands, got good punch. He gave us a little bit of something more in the run game and I was really pleased with what he's done."
During summer workouts with strength coach Drew Wilson, Ukandu realized he need to be sharper and pay more attention to details. He needed to work on the mental side of things, so he started drawing on what he learned in practices last season and from his two appearances in games. He applied that experience to his work in preseason camp, and now he's reaping the rewards.
A minor injury kept him out of the season opener against Richmond, but he worked his way back and joined Shaw, Quinton Jefferson, and Kingsley Opara in the rotation at defensive tackle. And after Shaw was injured, it was Ukandu's turn to step in.
"I've been preparing like I've been a starter all year because that's what Coach [Randy] Edsall tells the backups," Ukandu said. "All it takes is one snap and then you're in there. So I've been mentally and physically preparing myself as a starter throughout this whole season. When the opportunity came I was ready. I wasn't too nervous about it."
Ukandu got his first sack in the third quarter of Maryland's 45-6 loss to West Virginia on Sept. 26 and then made his first career start in the Terps' 28-0 loss to Michigan a week later. He helped an interior defensive line that stymied the Michigan offense for much of the first three quarters of the defeat.
"He's got good explosion," Edsall said. "He has a good, quick first two steps. Because he's built low to the ground, he's going to play with really good leverage. I like the effort, I like the contribution that we got out of him, and he's earned the right to be in there, to be the starter and we expect him to just keep getting better with the more reps he's going to get."
Ukandu is in his fourth year at Maryland, which gives him familiarity with Jefferson, a redshirt junior, and Opara, a third-year sophomore, and Cavon Walker, a junior who slid from defensive end to defensive tackle after Shaw's injury.
There's a trust in the middle of the defensive line, Ukandu said, and that helps each player focus on themselves in a play and not have to worry about what's happening in the rest of the unit.
And despite Ukandu's limited experience entering this season — he had appeared in only two games last season — his teammates trust him to be a disruptive force on the interior.
"I already knew 'Zubie' could play," Jefferson said. "I've been playing with him for the past three, four years now. I know that he's a baller. He got his opportunity and he's definitely making the most of it and I'm so happy for him and proud for him. I know he's going to continue to play well further on this year. He's a good player. He's really a good player."