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Ozougwu bursts onto scene for UNT

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Joe Ozougwu came to North Texas as a developmental project, and he hoped to follow the path blazed by his older brother in Conference USA.

The redshirt freshman linebacker had all the physical tools Cheta Ozougwu displayed at Rice before playing four seasons in the NFL. The former Alief Taylor standout just needed some time to tap into them.

The younger of the Ozougwu brothers showed he is further along in that process than pretty much anyone realized last week in the Mean Green's win over Louisiana Tech.

<br>Ozougwu

Ozougwu

UNT turned to Ozougwu when starting linebacker Joshua Wheeler was forced to sit out due to injury and saw him come through with six tackles, including one for a 3-yard loss.

"It was a great opportunity," Ozougwu said. "I enjoyed it.

"I got into the Old Dominion game and started to get a feel for it after a couple of plays. The game slowed down for me. It all makes sense now."

Ozougwu had just four career tackles heading into UNT's game against the Monarchs two weeks ago. He has 13 now, including 3 1/2 for loss, and has forced a fumble.

The surge is one he will look to build on during UNT's homecoming game Saturday against UTEP (0-9, 0-5 C-USA). A win would give the Mean Green the C-USA West Division title and a spot in the conference title game.

UNT (6-3, 5-1) is in position to play in a bowl game for the second straight season largely because of the development of a few young players. Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine has thrown for 2,599 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first full year as the starter, while fellow sophomore Khairi Muhammad leads UNT with 74 tackles.

Ozougwu showed flashes of potential that could help him join that young core last week.

"Joe stepped up and played every snap," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "He handled it very well, played his most complete game and did a lot of really good things.

"He had an opportunity and showed that he can make plays for this team."

Ozougwu credited UNT linebackers coach Jeff Koonz and his brother for helping him develop.

"Coach Koonz is a technician and makes sure we are ready to play," Ozougwu said. "He simplifies everything and makes it easy to just go out there, run around and play. I was 100 percent ready to go."

Cheta Ozougwu also played a role in his brother's development. He was a first-team All-C-USA selection in his senior season at Rice and was drafted by the Houston Texans in the seventh round in 2011.

Cheta Ozougwu was the last pick of the NFL draft, giving him the distinction of being "Mr. Irrelevant." The title  is bestowed on the final pick each season.

Cheta Ozougwu went on to play for the Texans, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears before a back injury ended his career. 

"He helped me out a lot, especially with pass rush," Joe Ozougwu said.

The work Ozougwu has put in is starting to pay off. He is listed as a starter heading into UNT's game against UTEP.

"Joe has a lot of potential," UNT cornerback Eric Jenkins said. "He works hard. Even though he had someone good in front of him, he listened and learned so that he would be ready when his time came. He did what he needed to do."

Ozougwu wasn't highly regarded coming out of high school and accepted an opportunity to grayshirt at UNT. He didn't sign with the Mean Green on national signing day and delayed enrolling until after the fall semester of his first year at UNT. 

Ozougwu spent the 2016 season as a redshirt.

Brandon Garner has been an anchor on UNT's defense this season and has been a key contributor for the Mean Green the last two years. He has seen Ozougwu grow.

"Joe has come a long way since the spring when he got here," Garner said. "He realized he was going to play and bought in."

Cheta Ozougwu had to retire from the NFL due to a back condition. He received an injury settlement on top of his league retirement and is working in real estate. He was planning to attend UNT's game against Louisiana Tech but had to miss it for a wedding. 

Cheta Ozougwu will have a chance to see his brother play soon, though. When he does, he'll see a player who appears to be on the rise for UNT.

"I am progressing and feel like I am contributing," Joe Ozougwu said. "That's special for me."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.