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Vandals’ Mayowa has found a home at defensive end

Vandals defensive end Benson Mayowa has added bulk to his frame while maintaining the speed that makes him a dangerous pass rusher. (Dan Pelle)
Vandals defensive end Benson Mayowa has added bulk to his frame while maintaining the speed that makes him a dangerous pass rusher. (Dan Pelle)

MOSCOW, Idaho – Back in Inglewood, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, Benson Mayowa made sure to heed his parents’ words. Stay away from gangs, they reminded him often in high school. And he did – even if many of his friends did not.

“It was rough out there,” said Mayowa, who managed to avoid the worst of his crime-ridden hometown.

But that wasn’t always because of football. For most of his formative years, the sport wasn’t even in the picture.

Mayowa, born to Nigerian immigrants, quit shortly after joining the Inglewood High football program as a freshman. He felt compelled to come back as a junior in 2007 – this time for good – and soon became a starter.

Four years later, Mayowa is a fixture on Idaho’s suddenly deep defensive line. He’s contributed since he was a true freshman, and his coaches say he could be among the elite sack specialists in the Western Athletic Conference this season.

How has he progressed this far? The short answer: “I was able to just keep my speed,” he said.

A late commitment in 2009, Mayowa (pronounced MAY-oh-uh) played his first game for the Vandals at 199 pounds. His quickness off the edge was startling back then – he registered a sack and two tackles for loss in the Humanitarian Bowl – but it was clear he had to get much bulkier.

Now 250 pounds, the 6-foot-3 junior has developed into a well-rounded defensive end. Along the way he’s managed to become more explosive in his primary task on the field – finding the quarterback.

“He’s increased his speed and more or less … his zero to top speed,” UI defensive line coach Eti Ena said. “He gets there fast.”

Mayowa’s chief worry while adding lots of weight quickly was that he would lose his main weapon. He knew he would never be a 270-pound defensive end in college, so he had to remain fast – and had to become quicker in reacting to the snap of the ball.

On both fronts, it appears he has succeeded.

Mayowa credits a customized workout regime of lifting and running one gasser after another for being “football fast.” Learning how to read quarterbacks – and respond to a center’s movement – proved to be trickier.

“It’s kind of crazy how I’m still fast. But getting off the ball, that took me three years,” he said. “Starting in spring (this year), that’s when I started getting all the looks and just keying the ball and getting off the ball.”

Mayowa’s father, David, moved to the U.S. from Nigeria in the mid ’70s and worked until he could afford to move his wife Eunice to the States as well. The Mayowas eventually had four children, and Benson is the only member of the family to go to college.

It wasn’t always a sure thing, though.

He came on so quickly once starting football in high school that Oregon was among the schools that showed interest, Mayowa said. But he qualified late academically, after UO and others had offered scholarships to other defensive ends in the 2009 class.

Idaho was the only school to stay in contact, and one reason why was Mayowa’s obvious knack for harassing QBs. In particular, Idaho coach Robb Akey noticed his natural lean working on the edge – “something I look for in a pass rusher,” he said.

When defensive coordinator Mark Criner watches Mayowa now, he is reminded of Trent Cole and Antwan Peek – two defensive stars he coached at the University of Cincinnati. Cole is still in the NFL and Peek played professionally for five seasons.

“He’s got some similar traits to them,” Criner said. “He can really get off the ball.”

Mayowa had three sacks in 2010 playing on the opposite side of productive senior Aaron Lavarias. But with the leap Mayowa has made in the offseason, Akey said leading the conference in QB takedowns is a legitimate goal for the defensive end.

If he adds more weight, that won’t be a bad thing either.

“The bigger he gets, the better,” Akey said, “as long as he maintains that speed.”

Sept. 1Bowling Green, 6 p.m.
Sept. 10North Dakota, 2 p.m.
Sept. 17at Texas A&M, 4 p.m.
Sept. 24Fresno State, 2 p.m.
Oct. 1Virginia, TBA
Oct. 8Louisiana Tech, 2 p.m.
Oct. 15at New Mexico State, 5 p.m.
Oct. 29Hawaii, 2 p.m.
Nov. 5at San Jose State, 1 p.m.
Nov. 19Utah State, 2 p.m.
Dec. 3at Nevada, 1 p.m.
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