DURHAM -- The Duke defense finished 10th in the ACC last season with 17 sacks and ranked last in creating turnovers, with 11. The two are closely related. Quarterbacks under duress tend to make mistakes.
Quarterbacks with plenty of time?
Kenny Anunike tells that sad tale. “Without pressure on the quarterback, offenses can wreak havoc on your defense. You’ve got your defensive backs running around trying to guard receivers and you can only do that for so long.”
Anunike knows what he’s talking about. He was among the nation’s leaders in sacks last season before tearing his left ACL against Tulane, Duke’s fourth opponent.
Anunike had four sacks by that point, vivid example of his prowess in that area. But those four sacks ended up leading Duke for the season, which shows the void left by his departure.
Anunike is back now, healthy after the fourth knee surgery of his Duke tenure. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles says Anunike “could be a 12-15 sack guy. He makes a tremendous difference. When he’s healthy, he’s as good as anyone.”
Head coach David Cutcliffe agrees. “Kenny Anunike off the edge can win a game. He’s going to have double-figure sacks, if he just stays healthy.”
There’s that qualifier. If he stays healthy.
Kenny Anunike is the oldest of four children of Emmanuel and Oby Anunike. His parents left their native Nigeria for Columbus, Ohio, in search of the American Dream. Kenny says his parents value character, education and faith. He was a superb student and multi-sport star at Olentangy High School in the Columbus suburb of Galena.
Ted Roof’s staff first made contact with Anunike but Cutcliffe closed the deal. “Coach Cut got me on campus and he had me. I came to Duke to be a part of a change. I came here because it was a family. Coach Cut treats us like we’re his kids. He teaches us about life. He teaches us to leave a place better than you found it.”
Duke recruited Anunike as a tight end. He had microfracture surgery on his left knee and redshirted as a freshman. He played tight end and on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2009.
Cutcliffe suggested that Anunike could help the team better on defense and he jumped at the chance. He played 12 games at defensive end in 2010, made six tackles against Alabama and entered the 2011 season as a starter.
All this bundled around two more knee surgeries, a meniscus repair in March 2009 and a meniscus debridement in December 2010.
Anunike had two sacks against Stanford last year, two more against Boston College. He was playing the best football of his life. “I was having fun. I remembered the reason why I started playing in the first place, the backyard football games with the family, the high-school games.”
Then came the injury against Tulane, a scramble play in which Anunike collided with a teammate.
Anunike says he knew immediately that his season was over.
Was his career over? Facing another knee surgery, another long and arduous rehab regimen, Anunike says, “I’m human. I had some doubts. I was just a kid. I can’t say it really got easier. It’s still a tough thing to bounce back from.”
He drew on family and faith. “I relied on faith and God’s plan. My father called me every night with reassurances. We’re a very religious family. Maybe God placed a roadblock in my way for a reason. Maybe it was not my time to come out. It helped me get deeper in my faith, to work on myself, to stay strong, to show me what I can do.”
Cutcliffe beams when talking about Emmanuel Anunike. “Normal folks would have just quit. That’s not Kenny, that’s not Mr. Anunike. This last surgery, Mr. Anunike came down and he was there for two weeks by Kenny’s side. He has a great spirit about him and he gave that spirit to Kenny. That’s why our players respect Kenny so much. He’s never lost enthusiasm. That’s a big deal.”
Anunike goes out of his way to praise Hap Zarzour and Kerry Mullenix of the Duke training staff, calling them “unparalleled.”
Contact work was ruled out during the spring but Anunike found ways to usefully fill his days.
“I’m always a student of the game. When I couldn’t be on the field, I was watching film, learning my playbook, talking to the younger kids, teaching them different things, techniques, what to watch for, know your opponent. I watch lots of NFL tape because that’s where I want to be.”
His time the weight room was so productive that the 260-pounder has the team’s best bench press, at 465 pounds.
Then there’s the classroom. Anunike is majoring in biological anthropology and anatomy and says medical school might be in his future. “Academic excellence is one of the reasons I came to Duke. You’ve got to grind, got to work at it. If I’m not on the field, I’m in class, in the library.”
He’s scheduled to graduate this December and would begin graduate school should he elect to return for the 2013 season. The NCAA granted him a rare sixth season to complete his four seasons of eligibility.
His injury forced Duke to use underclassmen Justin Foxx, Dezmond Johnson, Jamal Wallace and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo at defensive end. Knowles says the quartet “had to play before their time and they learned from that. Now they’re stronger, further alone, more aware. With Kenny healthy, this position can be a position of strength.”
There’s no question Anunike is first among equals, with his demonstrated ability to rush the passer a crucial component of Duke’s defense.
Anunike describes himself as a “hybrid” pass rusher, able to use strength or quickness. “Finesse is good, getting around these guys. If I can’t go around you, the only other way is to go through you.”
Knowles adds another dimension. “He’s got a great motor. A lot of sacks come off the second move, when you keep working. He doesn’t quit on the play. He’s not a bull rusher but he’s strong enough to knock a blocker off balance and keep his rush alive.”
Cutcliffe says a healthy Anunike is “huge, for a lot of reasons. He’s at the point of the running game. He’s the most physical guy we’ve got. He bench presses the world. He’s that guy that makes the big sack at the critical time. He’s an impact pass rusher but he’s also effective against the run. He’s an emotional leader. Our guys look to Kenny. They think he’s a grown man.”
“I’m 100 percent healthy and ready to go” Anunike says. “Ready to run down some QBs.”