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Justin Madubuike, The SEC’s Most Valuable DL

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Last week, he was at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. Today, he’s at SEC Media Days in Hoover. It’s hard to believe that this time last year, not many people knew who Justin Madubuike was.

“You can either be really, really good, or you can be great. There’s a difference."
~Justin Madubuike

Last week, he was at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. Today, he’s at SEC Media Days in Hoover. It’s hard to believe that this time last year, not many people knew who Justin Madubuike was.

“He kind of came out of nowhere last year,” Texas A&M Head Coach Jimbo Fisher recalled. “He had played a little bit, but nobody realized how good he was. We got there and immediately fell in love with him.”

Fisher and defensive coordinator Mike Elko saw the potential right away. Once the season started, it didn’t take long for everyone else to, as well. He tallied his first career sack against Clemson in week two, forced a fumble at Alabama a couple of weeks later, and broke through for a pair of tackles for loss another two weeks after that, versus Kentucky.

All three of those teams finished in the national Top 15.

“Every game for me is the same mentality,” Maduibuike insisted. “You have to win the game. And how you do that is by keying into the little details that Coach Elko and Coach Robinson have been teaching us. Just trusting and believing in your teammates that when we run this stunt, we’re going to run it the right way… when we do this front, we’re going to do it the right way.”

That may be true, but, suffice it to say, this is a guy that shows up under the brightest lights. Fast forward a few short months later and Madubuike was named the Aggies’ defensive MVP.

“It was truly an honor,” he relayed. “It’s a blessing because the guys in the locker room trusted my abilities. They trust that I can lead this defense -- through my actions, with my words -- to be the best that it can be. I accept the challenge and embrace it all.”

Yet, as the accolades and praise poured in, the native Texan was hardly satisfied.

“I have high expectations for myself. A lot of people say that I had a great year, but I don’t feel that way. I feel like I have more to prove. I have plenty that I need to get better at. I just take it one day at a time and get to work,” explained Madubuike.

Nevertheless, not only is he Texas A&M’s reigning most valuable defender, there’s a case to be made that he’s the most valuable returning defensive lineman in the league.

Per OAYP, not only does he meet the superstar threshold, even amidst a loaded position group, he tops them all. Now, the formula isn’t necessarily saying that he’s a better player than Derrick Brown or Rashard Lawrence or Raekwon Davis, in a vacuum. However, because none of their teams will be nearly as dependent upon their star defensive lineman as the Aggies will be on Madubuike, the rankings make sense.

From the OAYP defensive line rankings:

...it’s hard to argue with Madubuike’s production. In some ways, the formula is, first and foremost, a playmaker index. Whereas, for example, Pro Football Focus’ grades measure consistency, OAYP values the sort of snaps that show up on highlight reels. Madubuike’s three forced fumbles in 2018 are tied with Agim for the most among returning SEC players. He’s also tied for first with Brown and Lawrence among returning interior defenders in tackles for loss alone atop that list in sacks. It will be interesting to see if he can be as statistically impactful in 2019 after Texas A&M’s losses of Otaro Alaka, Tyrel Dodson, Kingsley Keke, Landis Durham, and Daylon Mack in the front seven. The Aggies’ average front seven OAYP score is the lowest of the five schools represented by the above superstars, so while he was the beneficiary of a strong supporting cast last season, he will be the focal point going forward.

He also racked up 44 total QB pressures last year, which ranks first among returning interior defenders in the conference, as does his 13.7% pass rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus.

His value does not stop between the lines, though. The lone returning starter in the front seven, it’s just as important that he’s a leader off the field, too.

Madubuike stated, “I’m one of the older guys now. It doesn’t feel weird, but it feels kind of different. I’m embracing it. The young guys look up to me. They always ask me questions. I tell them to prepare themselves mentally. Football is a game from the neck up.”

Even his offensive teammates have noticed the strides he’s taken in that respect.

“He’s someone who wasn’t as vocal in the past, so he’s being more vocal as well as leading by his actions. Obviously, we know what he can do on the field, but how he’s been able to impact our teammates will be a really big thing, especially after losing guys like Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka,” quarterback Kellen Mond confirmed.

Still, with great ability comes great responsibility, and no one is more acutely aware of how special Madubuike can be than Jimbo Fisher.

“Do you want to win the SEC, win the National Championship, or do you want to be in the Hall of Fame?” said the head coach in regards to his message to Madubuike. “There’s a mentality where certain guys can look past just making it. He’s learning how to drive and work and learn the off the field things. When he gets on the field, he plays his tail off, but he’s learning how everything you do has to have a championship mindset to it.

“It sends a message, it creates a habit of who you are. Who we are is what our habits say we are, what we do daily -- myself included. I’m trying to get him to think like that. Not to think like a great player, to think like a champion. Great players come and go. Very few people in this world can truly embrace a championship mentality.”

And embrace that mentality he has.

“You can either be really, really good, or you can be great. There’s a difference. You can be really, really good with your God-given ability. Being great is watching the film, getting your rest, eating the right foods, asking questions -- these little things that can enhance your game to a whole other level,” he told the media, echoing Fisher’s sentiment.

Whether or not he’s the best defensive lineman in the league is a worthwhile debate, but there are plenty of other reasonable candidates.

There is, however, no question as to who the most valuable is -- on and off the field. Scarily enough for everyone else, he won’t be satisfied until there’s no question about either.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP