Dec. 7, 2008
John Bianco, Texas Media Relations
For Texas senior DE Brian Orakpo, academics always came first. With that in mind, it was fitting that just one day after receiving his UT diploma he became the Longhorns' second Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner (nation's top defensive player) on Sunday. The recipient is selected by The Football Writers Association of American and presented by the Charlotte Touchdown Club in Charlotte, N.C.
"Earning my degree was always my number one priority and it was a very rewarding thing to accomplish," said Orakpo, a Youth and Community Studies major. "My family always stressed school first, so I learned at a very young age that I better take care of my schoolwork if I was going to do anything else."
Orakpo did just that at Houston Lamar High School where he was an Honor Roll student who graduated with better than a 3.0 grade point average. He also was involved in community service while earning all-district honors in both football and basketball.
"My parents and family really set a great example for me and taught me well how to handle myself and to have a strong work ethic," he added. "I took an interest in sports, and especially basketball, at a very young age and I knew I would have to handle my business in order for them to let me play."
That hard-working background is one of the key factors for the success Orakpo has had on the field. While balancing his schedule with school and practices, he hit the weight room as hard as any Longhorn player, sculpting his 6-4, 210-pound basketball frame into a 253-pound human missile.
"I've never been around a guy who works harder than 'Rak,'" said Longhorns head coach Mack Brown. "He never takes a play off in practice or a game, is always in the weight room getting bigger, stronger and faster, studies his film and prepares as well as anyone. He's also a guy who works just as hard in the classroom and has already earned his degree."
Orakpo went from the slight and fleet-footed end who ran down USC's Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush on the edge to make a tackle in helping Texas claim the 2005 National Championship to the nation's most explosive pass rusher who had Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford on the run in one of the premier college games of 2008.
"Pound for pound he has to be the strongest player in college football," said teammate defensive tackle Roy Miller. "People are just in awe of what he does in the weight room. It's just freaky. He does a great job using all of his strength and speed on the field."
Orakpo bench presses 515 pounds, squats 600 and power cleans 380. For a lineman with extraordinarily low body fat of just eight percent, the way he converts that power into speed and explosiveness is what makes him the nation's top defender and the type of defensive prospect that is coveted by the NFL. He has run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and registered a vertical jump of 42 inches.
"He benches 515? That's not normal," said Texas Tech standout lineman Rylan Reed. "So I mean, he kinda possesses everything. You gotta watch speed. You gotta watch bull rush, spin moves. You gotta watch everything. He's an all-around player."
Orakpo has been just that this season. Despite missing two and a half games with a knee injury, he has registered 10.5 sacks (No. 6 NCAA), 18 tackles for loss (No. 11 NCAA), 27 QB pressures and four forced fumbles (No. 3 NCAA). He has been a leader on an 11-1 Longhorns team that ranks No. 3 nationally and is headed to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl for a meeting with No. 10 Ohio State.
An American Football Coaches Association first-team All-American, the first Longhorn end since Tony Brackens in 1995 to accomplish that, Orakpo has been at his best on the biggest stages. He has posted 16 tackles, three sacks, seven TFL, nine pressures and a forced fumble against four opponents who all were ranked among the nation's Top 11 when UT faced them this season.
Orakpo was especially effective against what is considered by many one of the nation's top offensive lines in Oklahoma. In that game, the consensus Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year recorded seven tackles, two sacks, four TFL and forced a fumble in leading then No. 5 Texas to a 45-35 win over the No. 1-ranked Sooners. He accomplished all that while facing All-American left tackle Phil Loadholt, a mammoth lineman at 6-8 and 337 pounds.
NFL teams also got a glimpse of Orakpo's talents when he matched up with top NFL prospect LT Russell Okung (6-5/300) of Oklahoma State. He registered six tackles, one sack, two TFL and two pressures as then-No. 1 Texas defeated the then-No. 7 Cowboys, 28-24.
"Orakpo's a great player," Okung said. "He's played against a lot of pro-type linemen. He's beaten them on a consistent basis."
Now he's beaten out another collection of talented players across the nation to be named the Nagurski Trophy winner. Orakpo earned the honor over DE Jerry Hughes (TCU), LB Rey Maualuga (USC), DB Alphonoso Smith (Wake Forest) and LB Brandon Spikes (Florida). He joins 2004 winner LB Derrick Johnson as the only Longhorn to claim the honor.
"Wow, I'm speechless. Winning the Nagurski Trophy is an unbelievable honor," Orakpo said from Charlotte on Sunday. "I remember watching D.J. (Derrick Johnson) win it and thinking how special that would be. Now my name is right up there on the award with his and all of the other great players who have won it. It's a great honor that I can share with my teammates, coaches and family because they deserve all of the credit for putting me in this position.
"Coming back from the knee injury I had last year was really tough. Not being able to be there at full speed for my teammates for most of the season really made me feel like I was letting them down. After that, I was determined to get in the best shape of my life, get healthy and prove that I was worthy of being a great player and leader for this football team. Every day in the weight room and on the practice field I kept pushing with that in mind and it really paid off. I feel good that I overcame that adversity and that we're having such a great season thus far.
"But, we still have a lot ahead of us. We've put this recent challenge of not making the Big 12 Championship game behind us and are focused on proving to everyone what a great team we are, and I'll work hard to live up to the expectations of a Nagurski Trophy winner in the Fiesta Bowl."
This may not be the last honor for Orakpo, who also will likely be named to several other first-team All-America squads and is a finalist for the Lombardi Award (nation's top lineman) and Lott Trophy (defensive IMPACT Player of the Year).
"I can't imagine anyone has made more of an impact on defense and his team than 'Rak,'" Brown added. "He has such an unbelievable combination of strength and speed that makes him unblockable. As an offense, you have to account for him on every play or he'll just take over the game. Even when teams have tried to double team him or get him out of his game, he's such a smart, determined and gifted player that he's found a way to still have a big impact. It really hurt us when he went down for the second half of the game at Texas Tech and missed the Baylor game and most of the Kansas game. But, people saw what a disruptive force he is when he was back at full strength against A&M."
Now a college graduate, All-American, Nagurski Trophy winner and leader on a team that has extended Texas' school-record and nation-leading streak of 10-win seasons to eight in-a-row -- the second-longest streak in NCAA history -- Orakpo has one last thing to accomplish.
"A bowl victory," Orakpo said. "That's my final goal. I want to finish this thing right."