- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

When Wally Ake became Rice University's defensive coordinator in 1995, the Owls had a defensive end named Ndukwe Kalu, a gangly sophomore who seemed to shed some of his 215 pounds whenever Ake blinked.

Ake, now Maryland's defensive coordinator, blinked again Thursday gulped, actually when he heard Kalu's latest weight.

Try 267.

"That's a lot of momentum," Ake said.

And a lot of potential for Kalu, now a fourth-year NFL veteran on the Washington Redskins. With the impressive new weight attached to the same lithe frame, Kalu is evolving this summer from a speedy situational pass rusher into a dominant every-down end.

He isn't quite a starter, mainly because the Redskins picked up future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith and re-signed starter Marco Coleman this offseason. But there's no mistaking the buzz around the league. Kalu, who turns 25 Wednesday, is one of the NFL's hottest young players.

"I hear the buzz, but I don't listen to it," said Kalu, whose longtime nickname, N.D., has become his given name for professional purposes. "I always try to have the attitude that I can be cut at any minute. I think that makes me play better."

Kalu's modesty is nothing compared to his athleticism. He once high-jumped 7 feet, setting a district record that still stands in San Antonio, where he grew up after being born in Baltimore. Kalu could have attended West Virginia on a high-jump scholarship, or programs like Nebraska and Texas for football.

But Kalu chose the academically strong Rice on the urging of his parents, Dike and Carolyn. Kalu laughs when he compares his intellect to that of his father, a scientist, and mother, a retired certified public accountant, but concedes that he hopes one day to become a school principal.

"I want to play football until they throw me out of the league," said Kalu, whose given name means "god of thunder" in Ibo, his Nigerian tribe. "But people don't realize, once football players retire they're still young people 35, 36. So hopefully I can start my career in education and use the influence I gained through football to reach kids."

Six years ago, Kalu needed to reach for a box of doughnuts. He says he weighed just 205 pounds as a true freshman, and Ake said Kalu couldn't have gotten above 220 the following year. But Kalu's 6-foot-3 frame slowly bulked up, growing to about 230 his junior season and 240 his senior season.

"He learned to do all the right things to keep his weight up," Ake said. "He can play every down. It's just a matter of keeping a little lead in his pants."

Mission accomplished. Kalu claims to be just a pound or two over fighting weight, saying he feels "so good between 260 and 265." Meanwhile, the Redskins hope Kalu's extra mass and experience allow him to stop the run with the efficiency he sidesteps blockers.

"He's a strong kid now," Redskins defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "We're giving him the opportunity to [prove his strength in training camp], and that's what camp is going to tell us whether he can stop the run."

Trgovac and defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, both first-year Redskins, were in Philadelphia when the Eagles selected Kalu in the fifth round of the 1997 draft. Kalu played just three games that season before being released, but Rhodes and Trgovac each called him several days later.

"[The Eagles] made a decision they felt was best for the team," said Rhodes, then the Eagles' head coach. "I just wanted to let him know the talent I thought he had."

Kalu has registered just 6 and 1/2 sacks in two seasons with the Redskins, playing primarily in passing situations. Nonetheless, the club made clear this offseason that it would match virtually any offer for the restricted free agent. The situation never got that far, as Kalu declined a verbal three-year offer from the Giants.

"That was going to be a chance to fight for a starting position," Kalu said. "That's why that was kind of hard to turn that away… . [But] I thought something special was happening here. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to learn from Bruce Smith."

Kalu believes the education will pay off soon. After missing four games in 1999 with a broken foot, he feels he can get 10 sacks this season if he stays healthy. Asked when he would become a starter, he replied simply: "Whenever I get a chance. When somebody says it's you versus him in training camp; whoever has a better camp."

Meanwhile, the Redskins aren't cursing the depth provided by their still speedy, now 267-pound end.

"You can't have enough good pass rushers," coach Norv Turner said. "We'll have the ability, with the way N.D.'s playing right now, and really with the way he played when he was healthy last year, to come up with an assortment of personnel groups. It's very likely we'll be in a game with Bruce, N.D. and LaVar [Arrington] on the field."

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