Now that I’m going into my senior year at FSU, I can’t help but reflect a bit on my time here.
Before I went off to college, I knew, of course, that this was going to be an experience that would change me — I wanted it to change me. But now, when I look back on the player I was as a freshman, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come. In fact, one phrase comes to mind when I think back to my first year on campus:
One of the biggest reasons I committed to play football at FSU was the opportunity to be developed by Odell Haggins, our defensive line coach.
During the recruiting process, one of the things that impressed me about Coach was what he didn’t promise me. Coach Haggins was an NFL veteran, an All-America at FSU and as a coach he had sent dozens of players to the pros. But despite that, he didn’t promise me that I’d make it to the NFL. He didn’t promise me that I’d become an All-America like him. He didn’t even promise me that I’d ever get snaps. He knew all that stuff was on me to earn. But here’s what he did promise me: He would give playing time to the best players and he would coach me harder than I’ve ever been coached before.
When I finally came to campus for my official visit, my host was Nile Lawrence-Stample. At some point during the visit, almost out of the blue, Nile told me, “Look, straight up this is the best place to play ball. If you come here, just know you’re going to get coached really hard and the best players are going to get on the field.” It was in that moment, when Nile confirmed everything Coach had been telling me, that I decided I wanted to play for FSU.
What I came to figure out pretty early on is that both Nile and Coach were telling the truth. But I’ll admit, I didn’t really expect to get coached this hard.
My freshman year, there were days when it seemed like Coach Haggins was right in my face, screaming as loud as he could for half of practice.
“YOU’RE SOFT, SON!”
There were days when it seemed as though everything I did was wrong or not good enough. He’d go on and on about how bad I was, and the only way I could respond was by saying, “Yes, sir.”
That same year, during the ACC championship game, Eddie Goldman got hurt and I ran in to take his place. I was trying to get into my stance, waiting for the ball to be hiked, and from the sideline all I could hear was Coach Haggins yelling. It was hard to make out exactly what he was saying, but it was like he was screaming my name the entire time I was in there.
“Nnadi, what are you doing?!”
All I could think was Coach Odell. Please stop. Please not now.
When I think back on it, I just have to laugh. I really wish I understood then what I know now. There’s a reason Florida State keeps developing great players. It’s not because they constantly tell us what we do right. And if I couldn’t handle a coach yelling at me, I had no shot at keeping my composure during in a big-time game. A coach yelling at you is the least pressure you face as a player at a major program. My freshman year, I knew I wasn’t going to start. I was competing with guys like Nile, Eddie Goldman, Desmond Hollin, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and four other freshmen for snaps. But I was good enough to play, and Coach Haggins saw that and held me to the highest standard he could in order to help me reach that potential.
I’m really thankful for that. Because now, I finally feel like I’m the player he’s been trying to mold me into from the time I first arrived on campus. And, this year, we return a lot of upperclassmen who know what it takes to win at this level. We’ve all grown together and are such better players than we were even a year ago. Because of that, we feel ready to take on whatever challenges are thrown our way.
That’s a good thing, because up first, we got Bama.
For as long as I’ve been playing football, I’ve been on the defensive line.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The first game I ever played in as an eighth grader, they had me playing both ways, on O-Line and D-Line. I wasn’t having it. I never liked playing on the offensive line. There was too much structure, too many constrictions. I wanted to get down in the dirt, into the pile and try to hit somebody every single play.
Before I ever stepped foot on campus, I had the aggression side of the game down. That was something I could do. But it wasn’t until I got here and began really working that I got a sense of how many elements go into making plays at this level. It’s not enough to just be a tough guy, you need to have technique, leverage and an awareness of what the offense is showing you.
There are high expectations every year at Florida State, which is part of what made the beginning of last season so tough on us. I felt really good about our team, and then the third game of the season, we played against Louisville and got embarrassed. I ended up hurting myself during that game, and I’ll never forget how terrible it was to be stuck on the sidelines while my team needed me. A couple of weeks later, we lost a close game against North Carolina, and that’s when we really started doing some soul searching as a program.
I think that loss to UNC flipped a switch in the program. The fans were fed up, the coaches were fed up and the players were absolutely fed up. Almost as soon as that game ended, our mentality shifted. We started practicing harder and angrier. We stopped approaching games hoping to win. Instead, we went in knowing that we would win, because we were the better team. And with that mindset in place, we turned our season around.
When we made it to the Orange Bowl, we all felt a sense of satisfaction with the work that had gone into getting there, but we also knew we wanted more. In my first two years at FSU, we’d lost both our bowl games in pretty excruciating fashion. We decided we weren’t happy with just being there. We were going to win.
Most people reading this probably remember how things played out. I’m not sure I’ve ever played in a game much crazier than that one. But to this day, there’s one play in particular that stands out to me.
Late in the fourth quarter, Michigan’s quarterback scrambled for a first down and I chased him out of bounds. As soon as it happened, I knew I was gassed. I had nothing left in the tank. When I made it back to the line of scrimmage, I decided to try to push myself for one more play before going to the sideline to get a breather. I held my gap on the next snap, then had a sub come in to take my spot.
When I got back to the sidelines, I watched as Michigan scored a touchdown to take the lead. That’s when I started freaking out. I felt like we lost the lead because of me. We were going to lose another bowl game because of me. I couldn’t believe I blew it for my team. Eventually one of my teammates calmed me down. He reminded me there was still plenty of time and we were going to be alright.
He was right. Not only did our offense march down the field to score, but our defense also got a chance to end things with an interception.
When the final whistle blew, I broke out in tears. Part of it was relief that we were able to come back, but even more of it was just the joy of pulling out a close game like that. Knowing that, for us to win, I don’t need to always be perfect, because we’re a team of brothers who lift each other up.
Winning that game was a big milestone for us not just because it was the Orange Bowl, which is a big deal. It was bigger than that. It showed us what we’re capable of when we come together as one team. And with all of the talent we had returning, we knew for certain that there would be only one acceptable result for this coming season.
We’re out here to win it all.
If you do want to be the best team in college football, who better to start the season against than Alabama?
Even though we’re in different conferences, there’s a sense of familiarity between our teams. We all went to the same camps together during the recruiting process. I know their defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand because we’re both from Virginia. There are a lot of players on our team who know the guys on Bama pretty well.
We don’t view them as this unbeatable team. Instead, we respect them as peers. They’re one of the best teams in the country, so we should be playing against them.
Yes, they have a fantastic defense. They have speed at every position. And they have a roster stacked with five-star talent.
But we have each other.
And that’s why on Saturday, when we take the field in Atlanta, we’re going to do so knowing that we will absolutely win if we play to the standard we’ve set for ourselves. We expect to win because we believe we’re the better team.
Coach Haggins still gets on me at practice sometimes, but now it’s only about the little things. Also, he also doesn’t go out of his way to tell me that I’m soft.
I think there’s a reason for that.