Sharp as broken glass, sudden injury tempers victory which is part of what makes football more than pinball on turf. The game is not merely the score.
Idaho’s 45-21 homecoming win against Idaho State Oct. 19 sent the season’s largest crowd out of the Kibbie Dome surfing a wave of elation. But in the process, the Vandals lost their best defensive player, possibly the Big Sky Conference’s best defensive player, Charles Akanno, to a season-ending Achilles tendon tear.
A further irony: loss brings opportunity. “It’s the nature of the game. You’ve got to get the next guy ready. That’s the way it is,” Idaho defensive coordinator Mike Breske says. After Akanno was hurt, Leonick Tamba replaced him as the buck – the boundary side defensive end – in Idaho’s defense. “He is definitely a player I look up to,” Tamba says of Akanno. But when it was Tamba’s turn, he stepped up. Near the close of the third quarter the Vandals’ grip on a 10-point lead was looking tenuous against a suddenly lively Bengals offense when Tamba made a strip sack against ISU quarterback Matt Struck that Idaho cornerback Lloyd Hightower was able to recover and return for a touchdown.
“The (ISU) tackle did what he did, and I came free. (Struck) stopped, and I just had to go get him,” Tamba says. Another Vandals’ touchdown on Sedrick Thomas’ interception return on the subsequent series thoroughly drowned the Bengals’ fire.
Until homecoming, more had gone wrong than right for Idaho, which came into the game 2-5, 0-3 in the league. But Tamba has a history of seizing opportunity.
“We couldn’t afford sports growing up,” he says, so he didn’t begin playing football until his sophomore year at California prep powerhouse Mission Viejo High School. As an undersized as well as inexperienced defensive tackle, Tamba barely played on the junior varsity as a sophomore and played only sparingly as a varsity linebacker as a junior. However, a move to defensive end his senior year allowed him to become his school’s defensive player of the year and an Orange County All-Star. A 5-11, 200-pound defensive end and linebacker hardly attracted notice from college coaches, though, and Tamba took the only offer to continue playing presented to him, from the College of Idaho. On the football field, Tamba did well enough for the Coyotes, making 34 tackles as a freshman, including 7.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks. But he found the cost of attending C. of I. overwhelmed his financial aid.
“His parents had never been through recruiting before. He had never been through it before,” Breske says of that shock.
“I had to stop going there for financial reasons,” Tamba says. He went back to California and to junior college, transferring to his hometown Saddleback College, knowing the only way he would be able to complete a college education was with a Division I full- ride scholarship.
“I knew it was my last chance to go D-I,” Tamba says. “I was mentally locked in.”
In 11 games at Saddleback, he made 40 tackles, including 8 for loss, with 2.5 sacks.
Breske says Vandals coaches saw in Tamba a junior college player who was strong for his size and who played with great leverage. When Idaho offered him a scholarship, “I didn’t look elsewhere,” Tamba says.
He has also grown to about 6-1, 235 pounds. Through eight games, in his first season for the Vandals, Tamba has 21 tackles, five for loss and three sacks.
At Idaho, “he’s quiet,” Breske says of Tamba. “he understands what his job is. He leads through his actions. Guys just love him. He plays hard. He’s the Energizer Bunny.”
Tamba started as a buck but after several games was moved to the wide side defensive end, jack, before returning to buck when Akanno got hurt.
“I really like buck,” Tamba says. Because of the opportunity to occasionally drop into coverage at buck, “I can learn more about the game,” which is important with his abbreviated football resume, Tamba explains. “I’m not like a lot of guys who have been playing since they were 5 or 6.”
As a buck, Akanno, who had 44 tackles this season, 13.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks before his injury, is the more explosive player, according to Breske. “Chuck is more fast- twitch.” Tamba “is a much more physical player than Chuck. Chuck uses his athleticism,” Breske says. But both can do the job. Idaho’s next opponent, Cal Poly, Nov. 2, is the first true option team the Vandals will have played in several years, and against the option a powerful defensive end is a great thing. Tamba “is a strong kid. This is a perfect game for his assets,” says Breske.
Looking ahead to next season when Akanno and Tamba return as seniors, Breske speculates on where Tamba will play. “It’s a nice problem to have,” he says. “We’ll get him on the field.”
For his part, Tamba is happy to go where the Vandals need him, buck or jack. He gets to play football and get a college education.
“Plenty of people would kill to be in my position,” he says. “I love this game and everything it has brought me.”
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