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‘Sack Ave’ looking to make big splash in the Big 12

Nelson ceaser (left) and David Ugwoegbu (right) are poised to be a dynamic duo off the edge for UH’s defensive line. | Anh Le/The Cougar

When UH head football coach Dana Holgorsen was asked what position has stood out so far in training camp, he did not hesitate to heap praise on the defensive line.

“‘Sack Ave’ is not dead,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve got some guys that look pretty good rushing the passer.”

Despite losing key pieces such as founding members D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish to the NFL, the aptly-named defensive line room has once again shown to be arguably the deepest position group on the team with returning players such as junior interior lineman Chidozie Nwankwo.

“We’ve built a really good room,” said defensive line coach Brian Early. “It’s more than one person, it’s an entire unit. And if one of us is successful, the whole unit is successful.”

‘Sack Ave’ has produced multiple NFL draft picks such as Payton Turner and Logan Hall since Early took over in 2019, and ranked as one of the country’s best pass-rushing attacks in 2021.

That amount of success has paid dividends for Early in recruiting and developing players, so much so that he has even met recruits across the country that are familiar with Sack Ave.

“I’ll be in California on the West Coast and somebody will say ‘I know about Sack Ave,'” Early said. “It has somehow kind of got out there nationwide.”

This year, redshirt junior edge rusher Nelson Ceaser has taken on the mantle from the founders of Sack Ave to emerge as a leader poised for a breakout year. For Ceaser, earning a spot as a picture on the defense’s ‘standard wall,’ which houses pictures of several former teammates of his who blossomed into stars, is more than enough motivation to continue the tradition.

“I had some guys that I kind of looked up to… Peyton Turner, Logan Hall, Derek Parish,” Ceaser said. “Now I feel like it’s my chance to finally get on that standard wall. So I just tried to make sure I do everything in my power to get on that standard wall.”

To go along with the veteran stalwarts of the D-line are transfers such as David Ugwoegbu, a transfer from Oklahoma with 51 games of Big 12 experience, who will split time with other veterans such as Ceaser. With Ugwoegbu and Ceaser, Early is bullish on the potential at defensive end in 2023.

“You talk about two highly intelligent football players, they got a really high football I.Q.,” Early said. “That’s going to allow us to get them on the field at the same time.”

Even past the starting lineup, Early pointed out a bevy of players such as Nadame Tucker and Hakeem Ajijolaya waiting in the wings — much like Ceaser did — that are capable of both playing now and potentially developing into Sack Ave standard-bearers in the future.

“There are some players that are going to make an impact and play for us and contribute this fall that were red shirts last year,” Early said. “Everywhere else that I’ve been… we’ve won with the guys that we recruited and developed.”

Early’s system of recruiting and developing players behind already-established veterans has been a long time coming. After building Arkansas State’s defensive line into one of the best in the Sun Belt from 2014-18, Early entered a UH position group that had just two players available for the spring of 2019.

Five years, Early has built Sack Ave into a well-oiled machine, producing high-level players just in time to face the high-powered offense of the Big 12.

“It’s great to not start all over like we did in ’19 and now we’re just adding two or three pieces every year,” Early said. “We play so many people and we talk about strength in numbers that when people graduate like D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish, there are people that were backing them up that are playing ”

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