Linebacker Nakas Onyeka’s football trajectory is definitely rocketing skyward.
In 2016, the Laurier Golden Hawk was named OUA Defensive Player of the Year and was key to Laurier’s successful drive to capture the Yates Cup. He was also named a first-team OUA All-Star and a U Sports All-Canadian.
Onyeka’s football career at Wilfrid Laurier University was outstanding. In four seasons (28 games played), he registered 185 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two pass breakups.
The fact he was still available when the Toronto Argonauts selected the 6-foot, 210-pound Brampton native 36th overall in the 2017 CFL Draft is indeed, fortunate. Onyeka spoke to Toronto Football Talk recently about his football future with the Boatmen.
How does it feel to be drafted by the Toronto Argonauts?
[There’s] a sense of relief to finally get this over with, and actually getting to playing. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going any more. Just getting the playbook down and adjusting to the new game, and ultimately being put in a situation to show my skills and possibly compete. Toronto is going to give me a perfect opportunity to do that. Obviously, with the new coaching staff there’s been some turnover in the system, but they’ve given me all the confidence in the world that I’ll be able to compete and show off my skills.
What led you to football in the first place?
I started football in the 11th grade and some of my older friends told me to give it a shot. They ended up being CFL signings as well, [former Western Mustang defensive lineman] Ricky Osei-Kusi, who is with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and [former Mount Allison Mountie defensive back and current Montreal Alouette] Kwame Adjei, who was drafted by Saskatchewan. They had to persuade me into playing, but I gave it a shot. I played a few years at [defensive tackle] and then I moved to linebacker in my fifth year of high school, and never really looked back since. Laurier gave me a great opportunity to learn, develop and mature, which I did need to do my first two seasons. By the back-half of my second season, I had earned a starting role. Had a great third year, and had my All-Canadian fourth year. Playing sports was something I was raised on, and something that helped me release stress. Growing up, I was big into baseball and it was around 16 when I made the transition to football.
Was there anyone in particular who influenced your style of play?
My [WLU] position coach, Jesse Alexander, President’s Trophy winner, and All-Canadian [defensive player]. He played in the CFL a little bit. He kinda threw me under his wing. He’s the reason why Laurier linebackers play with the attitude we have. We describe it as brash and abrasive. What that basically means is to not be pushed around, and taking what we want. It’s the playing style we adopted, and what I became accustomed to.
That’s a good mantra to play by, one that would be good for the Argos since they were essentially man-handled last year. With your addition, and all the other off-season signings, hopefully the Argos can turn things around.
The Argos have talent. They added even more talent. [Linebacker] Winston Venable is obviously going to make your team better; [lineman] Shawn Lemon is there as a focal point in the defence. Through the draft, with the addition of [defensive back] Robert Woodson from [the University of] Calgary and [University of Manitoba defensive end] Evan Foster and [SFU linebacker Justin] Herdman, this team is going to be boisterous from the outset. There are a lot of athletes and a lot of competitive spirits on this team, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. Things like that will make your team better, right? There’s 30 players on the defence squad. The most dominant person isn’t going to be alone. We need to complement each other. That’s something I can add to the team because my compete level is always going to be there. Whether or not I’m playing as much as I want to, that compete level is always going to be there and always pushing my teammates.
You and several of your Laurier teammates are now in the CFL. Laurier won some respectability recently after a string of mediocre seasons. However, the Golden Hawks are now without you, defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng and offensive lineman Brett Golding. How do you think the team will fare next season?
The class that really set things off was the class two years ago featuring [defensive lineman] Ese Mrabure-Ajufo and [defensive back] Chris Ackie, who went fourth and fifth that draft. That class, and our class, really set that culture change in the program. My first year, we went one-and-seven. The two I mentioned earlier were in their third year at the time, and the next year we went four-and-four and won a game in the playoffs. Then, in my final year, we went seven-and-one. The team has been left in good hands. There are a lot of players there that are ready to step up. Obviously, with someone like Kwaku Boateng, who was the best pass rusher in Canada for the last three years, it won’t be easy to replace him, but we know we have good kids behind him. Robbie Smith has been waiting for his shot for two or three years. He will be a top CFL draft pick in a couple years. The thing that [the team] will still maintain is the culture. Coach [Michael] Faulds does a great job of installing a good work ethic in us, and our position coaches and co-ordinators. Whether it be [coaches] Dwayne Cameron, [Ron] VanMoerkerke or Irv Daymond, they all follow that mantra. Regardless of the players who are there, the players who come in, and the players who leave, that work ethic is still going to be there. That’s something the Laurier Golden Hawks can hang their hat on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Nakas Onyeka file
2016 Men's Football OUA Champions
2016 OUA Men's Football Presidents Award
2016 OUA Men's Football First Team All-Star
2016 CIS Men's Football First Team All-Canadian
2015 OUA Men's Football Second Team All-Star
Wilfrid Laurier Awards
2016/2017 President's Award
2016/2017 Team Most Valuable Player
Laurier Athlete of the Week
Oct. 20, 2014
Football Player of the Game
Defence: Nov. 12, 2016, vs Western — 109th Yates Cup (OUA Player of the Week)
Defence: Oct. 14, 2016, vs Guelph
Defence: Sept. 24, 2016 vs Waterloo
Defence: Oct. 18, 2014 vs McMaster
Defence: Oct. 9, 2014 vs Western
Image 1: Onyeka celebrating Laurier's 2016 Yates Cup win
Image 2: Onyeka in a game against Queen's
Images provided by Nakas Onyeka