'I had to earn everything': Michigan's Josh Uche passed tests of perseverance on road to NFL

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Indianapolis – Josh Uche can point to two pivotal moments in his football career when he was done with his situation and wanted to move on.

But he didn’t.

This is an important piece in Uche’s story, and something NFL scouts have surely gathered while studying and interviewing the former Michigan linebacker.

Josh Uche

The 6-foot-1, 241-pound Uche had a breakout performance last month at the Senior Bowl and suddenly he was attracting far more attention than even he could have anticipated. Uche, who had 35 tackles last season, including 11.5 for loss – one behind team leader Kwity Paye – also had a team-best 8.5 sacks.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week that Uche has a motor that doesn’t shut down.

“(It) jumps out to you. … I think he's just a really good football player and I like kind of the edge that he plays with," Jeremiah said on a conference call.

Uche might not be in this position had it not been for a difficult Pop Warner experience when he was in the fourth grade.

“I was not the best player at all,” Uche said Thursday at the NFL Combine. “I kind of got bullied, to be honest with you. I wasn't very good, wasn't getting much playing time. My dad, he was hard on me. He toughened me up. He wasn't sympathetic with me, I was crying or whatever.”

He had taken a hit and his head was hurting.

“I did quit,” he said. “I was like, 'I don't want to play anymore.’ (Later) I was lying in my bed and I’m like, ‘I still want to play.’ I told my dad and he said, 'If I sign you up, you better not quit, you can't quit. He didn't let me quit.”

Josh Uche competes during the Senior Bowl in January.

Fast forward to just after Michigan’s bowl loss to South Carolina in early 2018. Uche hadn’t played much as a freshman or sophomore and wanted more playing time. He met with defensive coordinator Don Brown to tell him just that.

“He wanted to fight me, I think,” Brown said jokingly during preseason camp in 2018, recalling the discussion. “It’s easy to say, ‘Coach, I want to play. Let me play.’ Well, go earn it.”

Uche recalled that time and shared his frustration. He was thinking about quitting. Not the game, but quitting Michigan and moving on.

“I'll be honest, thoughts of transferring came across my head,” he said. “But I didn't want to leave. So I sat down with Coach Brown. I asked him, 'What can I do to play more? What do I have to do? He wanted me to just keep competing. Keep competing at a high level and just see what happens and be patient, and that's what I did.”

He said the addition of strength coach Ben Herbert and nutritionist Abigail O'Connor came at the right time and he got stronger.

Uche rose to the challenge his father had given him in Pop Warner and then did the same after meeting with Brown.

“He challenged me,” he said. “And I definitely respected the challenge.”

While NFL scouts and analysts might be raving about Uche’s versatility – he is projected as a second- or third-round selection – he also knows his perseverance is meaningful.

“Not a lot of people would have stuck it out at Michigan in the position that I was in,” Uche said. “Not getting as many reps and things like that, they would have jumped right into the transfer portal. I knew I could go to any school and start at any school in the country. I knew I could do that. But I stuck it out at Michigan. I made a commitment to coach Brown and I made something out of nothing.”

Brown wanted Uche to become an every-down player, and Uche said the pivotal moment was early last season against Army.

“I literally played every single down, except for one I think,” he said. “I was the defensive player of the game. I made a lot of big plays that game. So I feel like that was a turning point. I always knew in my heart that I was an every-down player but that was my opportunity to prove it.”

NFL teams have told Uche they like his versatility and ability to do many things at a high level. But it is his pass-rushing ability that has attracted the most attention.

“I feel like I'm one of the best edge rushers in this draft class and also one of the best linebackers in this draft class, as well,” he said. “I can do everything from cover, play off-ball linebacker, and play on the edge too.”

He has had time to reflect on his college career and the low points, even back when he was a fourth grader in Pop Warner when things weren’t going well, and he knows now those were all events that helped him build toward this position now.

“I had to earn everything,” Uche said. “I worked my butt off to get to this point here. Nothing was given to me. I didn't have a silver spoon. Every single rep I was given I made the best out of it. Whatever job coach Brown wanted me to do, I did it at a high level. By God's grace I'm here today and I'm in the position I'm in today by just working hard and keeping my faith.”