INDIANAPOLIS – Kenny Anunike stands in the south end zone of Lucas Oil Stadium just a few yards in front of his boss, Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, holding a pair of arm pads as he puts the Buckeyes’ Rushmen through their regular pre-game warmups.
A deep, booming “Set, HIT!” from Anunike, and off goes Chase Young, DaVon Hamilton or Tyler Friday, pulling their fists from the dirt, side-scissoring Anunike’s pads to the left, curling around the imposing 6-foot-5 defensive line assistant and powering their way toward Johnson, punching through their main position coach’s own arm pads to the right before jogging to the back of the line.
When each player on the country’s leading sack unit pushes through Anunike and gets to Johnson, maybe they don’t know it, but there’s a chance they’re running from the future and into the past.
Anunike, who joined Ohio State’s staff in 2017 and is in his second season as a graduate assistant, was chosen by Johnson to help lead a group of men that has grown to respect him as a mentor and football guide. So much so that Anunike (pronounced AN-NU-NICKY) has emerged as a worthy potential candidate to replace Johnson one day.
The next step for most graduate assistants who stick around the program for two years is a promotion to quality control coach. If he does stay with the Buckeyes past this season, that seems the likeliest option for Anunike, who’s trying to stay focused on the here-and-now but admits a potential takeover of Johnson has crossed his mind.
“I feel like, in a year or so, whenever Coach J wants to be done with this, Coach Kenny’s been built to take over and take us in the right path.”– Ohio State defensive lineman Tyler Friday
“I would absolutely love that,” Anunike said. “I’m from Ohio. I was born in Ohio. Scarlet and gray bleeds through my veins. I would love that. If that is in store for me – which is what I pray to God for – then that’s what it is. But if it’s not, then I’ll deal with it wherever I end up. I’m just excited to be where I am right now, with this amazing team and this amazing group of athletes, amazing group of players and amazing group of coaches, man. This is a place unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. The brotherhood is truly, truly real on this team.
“I just worry about this moment. I worry about what’s right in front of me. I let that worry about itself because if I take care of what’s right in front of me right now, then I know those chips will fall in place right where they need to be, you know what I mean?”
Retirement rumors seem to run rampant for Johnson at this time of year. There’s been nothing concrete, only conjecture, as he continues to remain king over all other college defensive line coaches in terms of player development. But whenever Johnson does decide to hang up the spurs, he will need a successor to the crown, and there’s a very real possibility Anunike could slide in as the Buckeyes’ next defensive line coach.
“With the path he’s on right now, I think he could take over any D-line in the country,” Friday said. “I feel like, in a year or so, whenever Coach J wants to be done with this, Coach Kenny’s been built to take over and take us in the right path.”
Hamilton, a former three-star defensive lineman, mainly has Johnson to thank for evolving into a starter and the team’s second-leading sack getter.
Anunike had a strong hand in that development as well, bringing a more youthful, fiery side to the defensive line room and also providing different angles and perspectives learned during his time in the NFL while playing for the Denver Broncos. All reasons why Hamilton says he could see Anunike becoming Johnson’s successor.
“Yeah, I definitely could,” Hamilton said. “He works really hard at what he does, and hopefully he gets an opportunity to do what he loves to do. He’s definitely capable of doing whatever he dreams of doing.”
The team’s most talented defensive lineman has also gained an admiration and respect for Anunike and says he “definitely” could see Anunike stepping in for Johnson.
“If he really takes the teaching from Coach J – ‘cause Coach J’s gonna give him everything that he has – if he takes it and runs with it, I think he’ll be very good,” Young said. “He went to Duke. He had a 3.8 GPA. He can do whatever he wants in life if he wanted to, but he chooses to come here and coach us. We can’t ask for a better coach. Kenny, he can be the best that he wants to be.”
Those are incredibly strong words to describe the potential supplantation of a living legend by a guy who has zero position-coaching experience at any level.
Having a staffer go straight from grad assistant to position coach rarely happens because of the obvious risk. It happened recently for the Buckeyes when Brian Hartline took over for Zach Smith. That’s been a wildly successful move, but Hartline wasn’t replacing a beloved figure like Johnson, who in just six years has become immortal among loyal scarlet and gray die-hards.
Even without that desired experience, though, Anunike could be the perfect man for the unenviable task. Johnson has been grooming him for two years and has increasingly given him more challenges and tasks, at times putting Anunike solely in charge of the defensive line room.
Remarkable opportunity. Tremendous organization. Continuously blessed by the best & Most High to help lead these young men into battle! My Passion burns bright & theres no better way to use these gifts Ive been given!#WakandaForever #ProtectYourVibranium #Osu #Buckeyes #GoBucks pic.twitter.com/V2oz9J7CcV— Kenny Anunike (@ANU_NIKE22) July 10, 2018
He also has rapport and relationships with many of the Buckeyes’ defensive line targets, having taken on more recruiting responsibilities, especially since the summer, and he’s become one of the main assistants who many Ohio State recruits have referenced they have loved spending time getting to know.
Anunike wouldn’t be given that responsibility if he wasn’t worthy. He came to Ohio State with plenty of credibility and a local connection.
He was born in Mount Carmel St. Ann’s Hospital in Westerville and was bred down the street from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, becoming a three-star defensive end at Olentangy High School for former Braves coach Ed Terwilliger, now heavily involved in recruiting as the Buckeyes’ director of high school relations.
Anunike was never recruited by Jim Tressel, instead taking a scholarship to become part of David Cutcliffe’s first class at Duke in 2008 as a tight end.
That’s where he made a name for himself, switching to defensive end full-time before his redshirt sophomore season, grinding through an assortment of injuries and five surgeries during a six-year career. He became a two-time All-ACC selection and the program’s all-time sacks leader when he left, earning the nickname “The Night Train” and creating a reputation as being a tough, unrelenting and respected player who coaches had to hold back on the field. Almost never the other way around.
“I’m a really highly passionate guy,” Anunike said. “That’s how I played the game. I flew around. Coaches didn’t have to tell me to hustle. They’d have to tell me to slow down and hold back a little bit. But you’d rather tell a horse to ‘Woah!’ than to ‘Giddy up!’ I’ve always thought that, and I’ve always had a drive and a passion. If I want something, I go get it and do it with everything that I’ve got.”
Two years after signing as a rookie free agent with the Broncos, he became a Super Bowl champion in 2014 while getting a front row seat for the teachings of Von Miller, which Anunike has passed down to Young.
“He’s (given) me tips on how to watch film and things like that,” Young said. “I would definitely use that and watch my opponents. I think that’s the biggest thing he’s really helped me with is how to watch film. He played in the league and played with one of the best, Von Miller, and Von taught him a lot. Some of the things that Von taught him, he’s teaching me.”
Anunike’s playing career ended in April 2017 when he was waived by the New York Jets, and in the summer he was brought onto the Buckeyes’ staff.
More than two years later, the 29-year-old has been on the field for those pre-game sessions, coaching with the same passion with which he played and thunderously echoing his voice at the Shoe, the Big House and Lucas Oil as an explosive coach who’s harnessed that energy by utilizing what Johnson has taught him.
“Coach J just teaches me how to hone it. It’s like when Cyclops takes off his glasses it’s like,” Anunike says, floating his hand across his face while making a laser noise in reference to the X-Men superhero. “Coach J just taught me how to put the glasses on and make it laser focused and to hone it – hone my skills, hone my voice, hone my attitude and everything – and just put it toward developing the players.”
But it’s more than just energy with Anunike. He’s learned three pillars of coaching from Johnson – motivation, inspiration and discipline of players.
“If you do those three things and you do them properly, and you show your players love and give them ownership, these players will run through walls for you,” Anunike said. “When you can do that and truly show these players that you love them, man, they’ll do anything for you.”
He’s also discovered how to better evaluate talent and character. It’s crucial to get high-quality character in your position room and to get players “who are great students, because I can give you a great correlation between a great student and a great football player and great athlete.”
The two sit in Johnson’s office weekly, an eclectic group of conversations being tossed around as the two have formed an air-tight bond by bouncing ideas off one another about how to attack zone reads and which packages they want to shuffle in and out on third downs against air raid offenses, while often finding time to share personal information and anecdotes.
“The conversations that we have are just unlike any other that I’ve had with any other coach or any other man in my life aside from my father,” Anunike said. “But the crazy thing is, me and Coach J are one in the same with just how we think and how we approach the game, which is how we really clicked. I have a deep, deep, extreme passion for the game of football. Coach J has the same exact thing. Coach J just may not voice it as loud as I do, but that’s me. I’m just a super passionate guy, and I’m not gonna change for nobody.”
Anunike didn’t develop that passion during his college or pro days. He was born with it. It’s quite literally in his blood.
Anunike is Nigerian. His father, Emmanuel, knew that for his son to have the life he wanted for him, he would have to be born on American soil. So he emigrated from his village in Onitsha, Nigeria to Boise, Idaho, working up every dollar he could in order to buy Anunike’s mother, Oby, a Visa and put her on a plane to America. She didn’t speak much English at the time, only fluent in Igbo – the principal native language of southeastern Nigeria – and she was eight months pregnant with Kenny, forced to sign a waiver so the airline would not be liable for her if she were to give birth mid-flight.
She landed in April, gave birth to Kenny in May in Ohio, and that’s when a career in education was supposed to begin that would land him in college
“In Nigerian culture, education is everything, man. Education, education, education,” Anunike said. “But I started getting good at football so my father was like – I would tell him, ‘Hey, I made a touchdown today,’ and he’d say ‘OK, how was your math test?’ … And then when he figured out he wouldn’t have to pay for school, he was like, ‘When’s your next game?’”
Football did get him into school, but the education came with it too. Anunike worked for that high GPA to earn a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology and a master’s degree in liberal studies. He’s not alone in that academic success.
Anunike is the oldest of four, and he knew he couldn’t afford mistakes as he hoped to lead his two sisters and his brother down a straight path, which he certainly did.
One sister broke program records in shot put and discus for the Miami (Ohio) track and field team and serves as a seller of medical devices for Philips. Another sister recently passed her MCATs and is on the path to becoming a doctor (their father always wanted a doctor in the family). His brother played football for Toledo, being medically disqualified after suffering too many concussions but more than making up for it with a 4.0 GPA and nearing graduation with a business degree.
All this Anunike family success stems from Emmanuel and Oby’s high standards they set, and it’s all critical in how Kenny has become the Buckeye leader he is today.
“My dad set the bar so high, coming from Nigeria with nothing, and he got a Ph.D. in philosophy,” said Anunike, whose father also earned bachelor’s (architecture) and master’s (urban studies) degrees. “He works for the state of Ohio. He runs the solar department. If he can do all that with nothing, then how can I do nothing with everything? That’s really where my passion got sparked is from seeing his success.”
That’s why, when you see or hear him on the field, he wears those emotions so fervently on his sleeves. He knows no other way and would have it no other way.
Buckeye fans would be wise to get more acquainted with Anunike’s passion or start enjoying him while they’ve got him. Because no matter where it is, he will be a defensive line coach someday. That could mean for Ohio State next year or in two years. That could mean for another Power 5 program, or even a Group of 5 team down the road.
But whether it’s next season or years down the line, if all goes well, he’ll end up right back at Ohio Stadium and right back here in Columbus, where it all started. It would certainly make Emmanuel and Oby even prouder of their son. If that’s possible.
In the meantime, Anunike won’t rush anything. He’s going to wait patiently for his moment, and when that right moment comes, he’ll know exactly how to seize it.
Larry Johnson taught him that too.