David Onyemata has a long way to go. And he knows it.
The diamond in the rough the New Orleans Saints found at the University of Manitoba still has to be cleaned and polished, cut from something raw into a finished product.
Onyemata, a Lagos, Nigeria, native who only started playing football five years ago, had his fair share of ups and downs at the Saints’ rookie minicamp, a three-day session that drove home the work he needs to do to catch up to players who have a lifetime spent learning the American game.
“I definitely do have a little bit more work to do, just based on what I did in Canada and the different schemes and whatnot,” Onyemata said. “With time.”
Onyemata obviously has to get used to a few rules changes between Canadian and American football. For starters, there is one fewer player on the field now that he’s south of the border, and he’s no longer forced to line up a yard off the line of scrimmage.
He also found out the hard way that the heat in New Orleans is a different animal. Despite growing up in Nigeria, Onyemata has only played football in Canada, and the heat caused him to deal with cramps during the minicamp.
The growing pains haven’t come as a surprise to the Saints.
“There is a little bit more of a learning curve, twofold,” coach Sean Payton said. “We are working him at end, and we think he has flexibility. He is a guy that has played inside in nickel downs. ... He had a little heat issue, but he has done a good job, and I think he’s picked things up. Certainly, from an experience standpoint, it’s a bigger curve for him.”
Beyond the obvious physical gifts, Onyemata’s willingness to work was a big reason New Orleans traded up to get him in the fourth round.
The 33 repetitions he cranked out on the bench press at his pro day would have tied for the most at the NFL combine, and his vertical and broad jump numbers were right at the top of the list for players who weighed in the 300-pound range in Indianapolis.
But Saints assistant Bill Johnson, one of two defensive line coaches to make the trek north to see Onyemata at his pro day, also saw a dedication and aptitude that indicated Onyemata could close the gap in his learning curve quickly.
“He’s raw, and everybody knows he’s raw, but he’s a guy that checked out as far as his character. He’s willing to work, and we really tested him as far as learning was concerned,” Johnson said. “He was the type of guy that could pick up things. He understood concepts, so here we are.”
Onyemata’s improbable story — he had never played football until deciding to try out for the team in an effort to add another activity to his classwork in his first year of college — has made him a household name in Canada, a nation that rarely produces NFL draft picks.
For a lot of his fans, Onyemata’s selection is indication that he’s made it. Onyemata doesn’t see it that way.
For him, the story is just beginning. He can worry about what it means later.
“Not right now, because I’m still in the process of trying to make a name for myself,” he said. “Maybe when I get there, maybe once I’m done with my career and I can look back at all the things I’ve done.”