Passing Up the NFL: Why These Fierce Defenders Are Heading Back to School

Passing Up the NFL: Why These Fierce Defenders Are Heading Back to School

Linebacker Azeem Victor of the Washington Huskies walks out to the field before the game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 14, 2015.

SourceChristian Petersen/Getty

Why you should care

Because these two heavy hitters believe their 2017 will be even better. 

The adage “defense wins championships” can ring hollow during much of the regular season, but one look at last year’s College Football Playoff is proof that defense is alive and well. Two 2016 playoff teams, Washington and Ohio State, both CFP semifinal runners-up, find themselves in OZY’s Top 5, largely due to the surprising return of their best defensive stopper. Tyquan Lewis and Azeem Victor play different positions. They chose to postpone NFL riches for very different reasons. But both men are game changers — with the potential to dictate the success of their teams.

Victor’s Dream Meant a Return to School for the West Coast’s Best Linebacker

There was a time when it looked like college wasn’t in the cards for Victor, as he was dogged by an abysmally low GPA and insufficient credits. But after four years spent turning his life around and morphing into the most feared linebacker on the West Coast — a quarterback-crunching philanthropist with certain NFL stardom on the horizon — Victor’s future hung in the balance, dependent on an injury diagnosis.

During Washington’s first and only defeat of the 2016 regular season, a 26-13 loss to USC, Victor came up limping after making a tackle. He then fell to the turf and was taken off the field on a medical cart. With Husky Stadium suddenly grown still, the only thing to do was hope that he’d avoided the dreaded knee injury. Two days later, Washington head coach Chris Petersen delivered good news. “It’s not going to be a real long-term thing,” he told the Seattle Times. “It’s a bone. When it was all said and done, it was actually more positive than we were first thinking.”

Washington finished the regular season 12-1, losing to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Victor’s broken leg meant he wouldn’t play in that game, but the NFL was still an option for the projected second-round pick. Considering he’d narrowly avoided traumatic damage to his knee, the smart thing to do, said advisers and analysts, was make millions before another potential injury could end his career for good. But, determined to graduate and continue the work of his foundation, Azeem’s Dream, Victor returned to campus for the spring semester. Now the graduate student is ready for his on-field swan song before taking his talents to the NFL. “This is a young man that understands what this opportunity can do for him when football is over,” says Pac-12 Network football analyst Yogi Roth. “And on top of that, he had the unfortunate blessing of having the game taken away from him. He sees the game through a different lens.”

Victor’s journey to Washington began as an eleventh-grader at Pomona High School in Compton, California. While a standout on the field, his 1.54 GPA and a slew of missing credits made graduating high school — let alone gaining college entry — a long shot. For the final 13 months of high school, Victor attacked school as he had football. An aggressive schedule of summer school, night classes, online courses and private tutoring led not only to graduation, but also to Division 1 college eligibility. On November 9, 2016, three days before his injury, Victor launched the Azeem’s Dream Foundation, designed to ensure that at-risk middle grade students have the resources they need to stay engaged and ahead in school.

A dedicated philanthropist off the field, Victor is ferocious on it. He and teammate Keishawn Bierria constitute “as good a linebacker duo as there is in the country,” says Roth, a monstrous asset that Petersen can depend on as he reloads the defense for another run at the College Football Playoff. With Victor and quarterback Jake Browning, Petersen has two accomplished leaders on each side of the ball. But one must wonder if achieving last season’s level of success is even possible. Their biggest rival, USC, is markedly improved and boasts a potential NFL superstar at quarterback. Meanwhile, the Huskies boast an experienced team, but their top offensive threat — wide receiver John Ross — has moved on to the NFL.

Ultimately, the race for the Pac-12 championship, and Victor’s NFL future, comes down to health. According to Roth, Washington’s championship dreams run through Victor. “This team’s future is insanely bright,” he tells OZY. “The culture established by Petersen and developed by Victor will lead to success.”

Has the “Next Great Buckeye” Stayed too Long?

Eight months ago, at Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium, the Ohio State Buckeyes got dismantled. Deshaun Watson picked apart the Buckeye defense, and head coach Urban Meyer’s offense was useless. After a dominant 11-1 Big Ten regular season, OSU’s title hopes were dashed. Clemson: 31, Ohio State: 0.

What came next was the typical NFL exodus that major programs endure. Seven starters, including six underclassmen, were gone. Conventional wisdom dictates that Ohio State is due for a drop-off. But the Scarlet and Gray don’t easily slow and Meyer never rebuilds — he reloads. This season, OZY’s No. 3–ranked Buckeyes headline a deep pool of talented teams from the Midwest’s conference. Penn State is a popular pick to make the College Football Playoff, but Ohio State’s defense, namely the two-headed monster of Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis at defensive end, keeps the Buckeyes on top. For now.

Lewis seems to have accomplished everything he could at Ohio State. As a sophomore in 2015, he broke into the starting lineup and helped win a national championship. Playing in the shadow of current San Diego Chargers star end Joey Bosa (Nick’s brother), Lewis was named honorable mention All-Big Ten. Last year, the defensive captain became Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He earned his bachelor’s degree and, though a possible first-round draft slot awaited, Lewis returned to school as a fifth-year senior. “I’m still hungry for more,” he posted on Twitter at the time. Lewis’ return ensured that even with other units in flux, Meyer would have a seasoned veteran to count on up front. “We lost six juniors to the NFL draft, nine the previous year,” said Meyer at Big Ten Media Days in July. “So there are obviously some shoes to fill. But fifth-year seniors at Ohio State are hard to find.”

Lewis was named Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year this summer. And while he’ll surely star for the Buckeyes this season, he’s facing stiff competition — particularly from his own teammates. Bosa the younger also received votes for defensive POY and has blossomed into a top NFL pick. Together, the two ends make up what is arguably the fiercest edge unit in the country. But should Bosa or another top Buckeye lineman become a star, Lewis’ production, and NFL draft stock, could be adversely impacted. Programs like Ohio State turn players into stars and then nudge them off to the NFL. Stay too long and a new, more gifted prospect emerges from the shadows. At Ohio State, it’s a matter of when, not if. “[Lewis and Bosa] make a great pair,” says CBS Sports Network analyst Houston Nutt. “But there’s something about having a Bosa on the field — he’s always going to make plays.”

On the field, Lewis will leave Ohio State as one of the program’s most productive defensive linemen ever. His NFL draft stock appears less certain than Bosa’s, but his influence in the locker room shouldn’t be undersold. Not one for the gift of gab, even Meyer admits that experienced senior captains bode well for success. “History shows that usually indicates a good, solid team,” Meyer says.

That’s one way to put it.

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