When Kenechi Udeze arrived at the University of Southern California in 2000, it would have been difficult to envision that one day he would be coveted by NFL teams as a sleek chaser of opposing quarterbacks. He had weighed, by his count, as much as 382 pounds in high school. It took USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron telling him at a football camp that a scholarship would be waiting for him if he lost 30 pounds by national signing day, for him to be down around 350 by the time he began college.
That was only the beginning for Udeze, who weighed 281 when he arrived at the NFL scouting combine in late February as the top defensive end in college football. With about a 9 percent body-fat level and a quick-for-a-lineman time of around 4.7 in the 40, he will be rewarded handsomely Saturday when he is expected to be the first defensive end selected in the NFL draft, perhaps with a top-10 choice.
"When I lost the weight, not only did I gain a lot of self-confidence on the field when my athleticism started peaking, but as a human being I developed much more socially and became a different person,'' Udeze said at the combine. "I think the discipline came from my work ethic. When it came down to it, I had a weight problem and USC gave me a chance. I didn't want to let them down."
Udeze represents a valuable draft-day commodity -- a pass rusher who looks as if he will succeed in what has become a pass-first league. And with the sport's decision-makers ordering game officials to crack down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs, it will become even more important for a defense to have linemen who can get to the quarterback. The best two in this draft, it appears, are Udeze and Ohio State defensive end Will Smith.
"I can't compare myself to anybody,'' Smith said at the combine, "but I think I can make an impact when I get to the NFL.''
So, too, can Udeze, who produced 28 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and 51 tackles for a loss in 37 games at USC. He decided to leave school after a junior season in which he had 161/2 sacks and helped the Trojans to a share of the national title.
"I feel I am the best pass rusher in the draft [and] maybe even the best run stopper at the end position as well,'' Udeze said. "I feel like I cover both aspects of the game pretty well. I'm one of the more balanced players in the draft. I force fumbles. I create things. . . . I do whatever it takes to help the team out."
The Washington Redskins have told Udeze that they will consider selecting him if they trade down from the draft's fifth overall choice. Some executives around the league have him targeted for the Jacksonville Jaguars with the ninth selection.
He has retained the nickname BKU -- "Big Kenechi Udeze'' -- from his heftier days. He says he weighed about 215 pounds in the sixth grade, and between 330 and 340 as a high school junior before really letting his weight get out of control as a senior at Verbum Dei High in Los Angeles. He was a dominant high school defensive tackle but some colleges -- including Columbia, Brown, Army and New Mexico, according to Udeze -- stopped recruiting him because of his weight.
"When I see my high school pictures, I ask myself why I let it go that far,'' he said. "I look at pictures and my face is swollen. . . . I had no definition. My body was pretty much a joke."
Then came Orgeron's scholarship offer, and Udeze says he began his weight-loss program that very day. He made himself a sandwich for dinner and went outside to jog. He was redshirted his freshman year at USC and he had lost nearly 90 pounds in all, he says, by the time he got to play in a game in 2001.
"It started falling off of me,'' Udeze said. "The doctor there saw me and told me I had needed to lose weight. When he saw me on campus, he couldn't believe it. He did a double-take. He pretty much sat down and tested me for steroids because he thought I was doing something. I was laughing. When the results came back, he said, 'You're the first guy who really fooled me.' I never have taken supplements or anything like that."
He studies tapes of the league's great pass rushers -- Jason Taylor, Michael Strahan, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, even all the way back to Hall of Famer Alan Page -- and tries to emulate their moves. When former New York Jets and New England Patriots coach Pete Carroll became USC's coach, he stressed to Udeze the importance of trying to strip the ball from quarterbacks instead of just bowling them over.
Udeze calls Smith, the NFL's career sacks leader who spent the past four seasons with the Redskins, the greatest pass rusher in history, adding: "He's the guy I try to emulate. We're pretty much built the same. He played the run with great leverage and he had great hands. I think that's one of my best assets, using my hands."
Will Smith almost certainly will be the second defensive end off the board Saturday after a senior season at Ohio State in which he had 101/2 sacks. He nearly left school a year early, on the heels of the Buckeyes' national championship season in 2002, but was talked into staying by his father, William, and grandmother, Nancy, who helped raise him in Utica, N.Y., after his mother died of cancer when he was 4.
"I thought about it a lot,'' Smith said. "I wanted to leave really bad. But then I talked to them, and they wanted me to stay another year and finish up school. That's what I did, and I had a really good year.''