Michigan’s Josh Uche, the wild card of the edge-rushing class, checks in at No. 5 in our pecking order.
One of the most intriguing defensive prospects in this year’s NFL Draft, Michigan’s John Uche might wind up being a first-round draft pick.
That couldn’t have seemed any less likely when he was a kid.
“I was in the fourth grade, I got hit really hard, my head was hurting,” Uche recalled at the Scouting Combine. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to play anymore. ‘I was laying in my bed and I’m like, ‘I still want to play.’ I told my dad and he said, ‘If I sign you up, you better not quit, you can’t quit.’ He didn't let me quit.”
Uche didn’t quit, but his football trajectory wasn’t much better a year later.
“Pop Warner, this was about fifth grade, and I was not the best player at all,” Uche said. “I kind of got bullied, to be honest with you. I was getting bullied, and I wasn’t very good, wasn't getting much playing time. My dad, he was hard on me. He toughened me up. He wasn’t sympathetic with me. I was crying or whatever. He was just really hard on me and then right after that, the next year, I came back I ended up being the best defensive player on that team. So, that was one of the most memorable moments for me in football.”
Uche’s career arc at Michigan was a bit similar. He barely played as a freshman and sophomore. After the sophomore season, he went to defensive coordinator Don Brown and asked for more playing time. The conversation got heated. “Well go earn it, how about that? How about go earn it?” Brown related in a story for USA Today.
So, Uche did earn it. Playing off the bench as a junior, he recorded seven sacks. As a senior, he earned the first nine starts of his career and was second-team all-Big Ten with team highs of 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for losses. Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills, a veteran of weekly SEC battles, called Uche his toughest opponent.
“I'll be honest, thoughts of transferring came across my head. But I didn't want to just leave, get up and jump in the transfer portal,” Uche said. “So, I sat down with Coach Brown, I asked him, ‘What can I do to play more? What do I have to do?’ He wanted me to just keep competing at a high level and just see what happens and be patient, and that's what I did. That same winter, (strength) coach Ben Herbert came in along with (nutritionist) Abigail O'Connor and my weight went up, my eating habits went up, everything went up. I got a lot stronger, my body started to change. It's a testament to those two.”
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What we like
Uche can be a versatile piece for any creative defensive coordinator. While he mostly rushed the passer at Michigan, he said he spent a lot of his practices as an off-the-ball linebacker. “I believe I'm a linebacker that can play off the ball first two downs, then third down go get the quarterback. Talking to teams, that's the feel I'm getting.” He could be an elite weapon on third down. According to Sports Info Solutions, 25 percent of his pass rushes resulted in pressures. That’s the best rate in the draft class.
What we don’t like
Then again, at 6-foot-1 1/8 and 245 pounds, Uche is a tweener. What he does best is rush the passer but his body looks more like a linebacker. That’s not to say he can’t excel in a multiple role. It’s just that there’s even more projection than usual. “I feel like I'm one of the best edge rushers in this draft class and also one of the best linebackers in this draft class as well. I can do everything from cover, play off-ball linebacker, and play on the edge too.” As a pass rusher, he’s sort of a one-trick pony with everything based on speed.