Through 6 games, Nzeocha leads Cowboys in tackles, sacks, pass break-ups and forced fumbles

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LARAMIE, Wyoming — For years, Mark Nzeocha was an example of what could be.

When he arrived in Laramie from Germany, the 6-foot-3, 239-pound athlete was already a physical specimen. He could run with the defensive backs and lift with the defensive linemen.

He was tall, strong, fast and willing. He had all the tools, but none of the mental polish.

At the top collegiate level, Nzeocha had to adjust to a game that was far more advanced than anything he had experienced in Germany. He was confronted with schemes, shifts, checks and audibles.

For a while, he was lost, buried under a sea of technicalities.

"If he ever figures it all out," folks said, "watch out."

Are you watching?

In his senior season, Nzeocha -- once a safety, now a strongside linebacker -- is a staple of the Cowboys' defense, having successfully absorbed another change in scheme, this time back to the 4-3.

Nzeocha's versatility knows no bounds. Through six games, he leads Wyoming in tackles (55), sacks (2), pass breakups (5) and forced fumbles (2). In the 38-28 loss at Hawaii on Saturday, he accumulated 13 tackles with a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Basically, he was everywhere, doing everything, all at once.

And his teammates took notice.

"He's been there throughout the season. And when we need something, he comes up with it," junior defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said. "All praise to Mark. He's amazing."

Nzeocha's sudden versatility doesn't end on the stat sheet. The senior also serves as a jack of all trades for the Cowboys, playing the strongside linebacker position in base sets and shifting over to the middle linebacker spot in nickel packages.

When the defense leaves the field, Nzeocha stays on it. He covers kickoffs and punts. He's on the field goal coverage team as well.

Whereas Nzeocha once struggled to comprehend the subtleties of one position, he is now making an impact at several.

"I've definitely gotten better," Nzeocha said. "I just started playing at the nickel MIKE position a couple weeks into fall camp, so it was kind of late. But I feel like the transition went really well. Every game, it's getting better. I'm really starting to get the hang of it."

And of course, that athleticism hasn't gone anywhere, either. Senior cornerback Blair Burns sat inside a Rochelle Athletics Center meeting room on Monday and told the story of a tackle he missed in the Air Force game. He dived and came up empty, missing the Falcon wide receiver.

When Burns turned his head, Nzeocha was already on him, having chased down the supposedly quicker receiver from the other side of the field.

"It's an honor playing next to a guy like that who can run the ball down, who can make plays on the ball, who can catch interceptions if he wants to," Burns said. "It's a great honor, just knowing you have that guy next to you that can make up for your mistakes."

Nzeocha, for one, isn't likely to point out his own prolific numbers, though they are certainly worthy of recognition. The senior linebacker prefers to deflect credit to his coaches and his team.

He will admit, though, that after years of moving from one position to another, from one scheme to the next, it feels good to have finally found a home.

And in his final season as a Cowboy, Nzeocha is transforming all that potential into consistently spectacular results.

"It definitely feels good to be settled at this linebacker position," Nzeocha said. "I know that's my fit. Now I can focus at making the best of that position."

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune,

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