Lost amid the hype of the recent European player signings in the NFL is Mark Nzeocha from Anspach, Germany who is vying for a spot with the Dallas Cowboys.
Drafted in the seventh round with the 236th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, the 6′ 3″, 240 lb Nzeocha (pronounced en-zah-chuh) is now listed on the depth chart at middle linebacker behind only Anthony Hitchens but started last week in the Cowboys 28-24 preseason loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
This is a far cry from the small town of Neusitz, Germany (population 2,000, two hours southeast of Frankfurt) where he was born. He attended school in nearby Anspach with a population of 40,000 but his interest in football was sparked when he started playing flag football with the Franken Knights club team in neighboring Rothenburg ob der Tauberyouth. He graduated to tackle and his athleticism attracted the interest of German national team coaches.
He played safety for the German National Team that won the 2008 European Junior Championships and that finished fifth in the 2009 IFAF Junior World Cup in Canton, Ohio. He had an impressive tournament and was named to the All-tournament team. That was enough for the University of Wyoming coaches who gave him a scholarship.
Although his college career was cut short by a serious knee injury after seven games in his senior season he produced outstanding numbers. Nzeocha recorded 207 tackles and three sacks in his four years with the Wyoming Cowboys. Almost half of them (101) came during his junior season. He made 59 tackles in his last season before the injury.
What attracted the Dallas Cowboys were his physical numbers. Wyoming defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Steve Stanard told the Caspar-Star Tribune that Nzeocha had a 39-inch vertical, broad jump of 11 feet and ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds in a workout for scouts. But it was his SPARQ ranking that triggered the Cowboys draft interest. An acronym for Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness it gives scouts and coaches an accurate idea of a player’s potential.
Nzeocha’s rating of 140.7 was the second highest of all linebackers in the 2015 draft class.
Although he was not activated until the final two games of the 2015 season he has showed enough to warrant continued interest.
David Helman is a writer for the Dallas Cowboys:
“I was not convinced Mark Nzeocha’s stay on the Cowboys roster was going to be a long one back when he was drafted. After all, he was taken in the seventh round and his availability to play was no certainty after an ACL injury. The guy taken a round before him, Laurence Gibson, didn’t last through training camp. Fortunately for Nzeocha, he got to hang around on the Cowboys’ NFI list and go through a full recovery before joining the 53-man roster. His contributions were minimal, but it was interesting to get an idea of what kind of role the coaching staff sees for him. By no means am I expecting Nzeocha to compete for a starting linebacker job, but he’ll have a big opportunity to earn the fifth or sixth job on the roster. Based on the little we’ve seen, there’s cause for optimism that he can be a core special teamer and a reserve defender.”
Interestingly, Nzeocha’s brother Eric now plays linebacker for the University of Wyoming.
According to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys are not only aware of Nzeocha’s athleticism but are working on his relative newness to the game:
“One of the real concerns with our evaluation of him right from the outset was trying to get our arms around not playing American football as much as the other guys have,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “You have some concerns about maybe his instincts, his naturalness for the game, but he is a very athletic guy, and ironically, he demonstrates a lot of instinct.”
“He is very good in space, very good on special teams, catches the ball and really makes a lot of plays on the ball. [He is] coming off of an ACL [injury], but he worked out very well in April, so we got our arms around his health and felt really good about taking him there.”
As Nzeocha battles for a spot on the Cowboys he offers further proof of the potential of international players as the game of American football continues to expand around the globe.