Hero Kanu Ready for More Experience As He Develops From Soccer Goalie to Ohio State Football Star

By Andy Anders on May 17, 2024 at 12:46 pm
Hero Kanu

It’s hard not to smile when Hero Kanu reminisces about his transition from a soccer goalie in Germany to a defensive tackle at the highest level of college football.

That’s probably because of how much the 305-pound interior monster smiles and laughs when discussing the whole situation. Starting with his decision to spend his last year of high school stateside at Santa Margarita Catholic in California.

“After I received my first scholarship (offer) and I was still in Germany, I was working with PPI recruits, shoutout to Brandon Collier,” Kanu said. “He was like, ‘Hero, we’ve gotta figure something out.’ I was like, ‘What you thinking?’ He said, ‘Man, you might have to go to high school in America.’” 

“‘Uh, yeah, I’ll do it, but I don’t know how my mom feels about it.’”

Now, with two years of learning from Larry Johnson and a 10-tackle 2023 under his belt, Kanu is vying to be the first defensive tackle off the bench for Ohio State in 2024 and take the next leap in his foray from German football prospect to American football star, albeit at the college level.

“Just getting more reps overall in the game,” Kanu said. “I feel I’ve just elevated my game every day. Coach J is pushing me to get better every day, to focus on the small things because it’s never, like, the big things. It’s always a small step, small technique and he’s trying to fix that. I feel like, overall, I’m improving so well that I’m not worried about anything else right now.”

Kanu’s American football journey started on a soccer field near his hometown of Geltendorf, Germany, a village of just a few hundred people. It was there he connected with Philip Okonkwo, a tight end preparing to play high school football in Oklahoma. Okonkwo introduced him to Collier.

Once he started training, Kanu found himself drawn to the gridiron game.

“You kind of outgrow (soccer) at like 6-4, 250,” Kanu said with a laugh. “I don’t want to disrespect anybody that’s there, but it’s softer. If you hit somebody, somebody may fall, ‘Oh, foul.’ And I didn’t like that because a lot of times it’s fake, and I didn’t like the whole mentality, so I was like, ‘I need something new.’”

Of course, the decision to uproot his life in Europe and head across the Atlantic Ocean to further his newfound athletic career wasn’t easy. 

“At first I was a little, how do you say it in English, flabbergasted,” Kanu said with another hearty chuckle. “I was like, ‘Wow, is this real?’ It took me a couple of days during the process, then I told Brandon, ‘Hey, whatever it takes.’ Went to America, played my season there and the rest is history.”

“At first I was a little, how do you say it in English, flabbergasted. I was like, ‘Wow, is this real?’"– Hero Kanu on his chance to go to America

Following an extended recruiting process, Kanu committed to Ohio State in January 2022 and enrolled that summer. A redshirt year followed, a natural development for someone playing the sport roughly the same amount of time it takes for a baby to start walking.

Against Indiana in Week 1 of 2023, however, Kanu got his first taste of success on a quarterback sack. From there, he found spot duty on the interior of the defensive line and played 90 snaps in 12 games. He finished the year with 10 tackles, including a big 2nd-and-7 stop at Wisconsin in October.

 “I think that’s a big part of it, just getting more reps, more game reps overall,” Kanu said. “(Johnson) is like, ‘Hey, put Hero in.’ I’m going on the field, and then the first game, I made a play. That’s what it’s all about. And that gives you confidence, it gives you experience and I think all of that contributed.”

Even though Kanu got into football with a desire to hit people, Johnson has been sure to pull more of a mean streak out of him since he switched from the pitch.

“I’m naturally a nice guy. Coach J definitely had to push a little bit. I think he did a great job of just bringing it out of me,” Kanu said. “He’s had time to work with me now for two years and in recruiting, so I think he did a great job doing that.”

Kanu is part of a larger group of backup defensive tackles behind starters Tyleik Williams and Ty Hamilton that Johnson feels confident in going into the fall. Depth has been an emphasis this offseason in preparation for the potential extended campaign a 12-team College Football Playoff brings.

“For the inside guys, I feel pretty good,” Johnson said. “Some guys are challenging for positions. Jason Moore is starting to make a push. You’ve got Hero Kanu inside, and then you’ve got K-Mac. ... Right now, it’s really just pushing the young guys more than I’m pushing the older guys. We’re kind of shutting them down a little bit and letting these young guys get some work against the ones, twos, so they get ready.”

More game reps should only reap more yields for Kanu as he develops. Perhaps then he’ll be smiling and laughing about the quarterbacks and ball carriers he’s terrorized.

“We try to treat practice like a game, but obviously, in a game, there’s way more on the line,” Kanu said. “If you mess up there is no going back. There’s no, ‘Oh, repeat the same play.’ In practice, there is. So it’s just a difference of pressure, make the play when your number is called.”

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