With one breakout season behind him, Kene Onyeka is looking to further cement his status, and become one of the high-end Canadian pass-rushers in the league.
Onyeka came into the CFL a baby-faced rookie in 2019 after the Ottawa REDBLACKS selected him with the 29th overall pick in the 2018 CFL Draft. On the cusp of turning 27, the Lagos, Nigeria native who grew up in Brampton, Ont. has become a key part of the defensive line.
It was never magic. Onyeka didn’t go to sleep one night and suddenly turn into a starter, and certainly, it wasn’t a given that he would turn in a career-best season in 2022. The process has felt like it has gone in the blink of an eye for outsiders, but in the five years after the draft, Onyeka’s resolve has been oft tested, and his between-the-ears makeup has powered him forward.
“I feel like I was the same person throughout university, I just got a little better at football over time,” said the Carleton University alumnus. “But in the last two years, there has been a lot of growth. I have matured a lot, and I feel like it’s time to start taking things a little more seriously. That’s where I’m seeing results now. You have to understand how much of a gift it is to still be playing.”
In 2022, Onyeka made the leap from special teamer to key defensive contributor. He took advantage of the playing time, bringing down the quarterback five times, and forcing a fumble. No. 99 was a big piece of the REDBLACKS’ revamped defensive line, along with CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Lorenzo Mauldin IV, and veteran Canadian defensive tackle Cleyon Laing.
It was a unit that sacked the quarterback 47 times in 2022, good for second in the league, behind only the Calgary Stampeders. The players, including Onyeka, credit Mike Phair, the REDBLACKS’ Defensive Line Coach, for the success, as well as one another.
“Naturally, I’m going to give [everyone else] the credit,” Onyeka said. “We have a good group up front, and when you play opposite the Most Outstanding Defensive Player, it makes it a little easier to get to the quarterback. As a unit, we’re cohesive.”
If you ask Phair who deserved the praise, he’ll sing a different tune, washing his hands of any responsibility.
“I give credit to the players,” Phair said, not accepting the glory. “They listen [to coaching], they bought in, and they did exactly what I asked them to do. They took advantage [of the opportunity].”
With such a talented group, there are plenty of tricks for the still-improving Onyeka to pick up from his teammates.
“Mauldin knows how to finish, and that’s one thing we can all learn,” Onyeka said. “If you watch the film, we all missed a whole bunch of sacks, we probably could have doubled the amount of sacks we had last year if we would have finished like Lorenzo.”
Approaching the REDBLACKS June 30th Canada Day Red Out Game, the Canadian defensive lineman isn’t focused on any individual statistics, but on improving each day and ultimately helping his club win games.
“My main goal is never to take a step backward,” Onyeka explained. “You hope to be able to make the jump and be an All-Star, maybe the MODP, but that’s not always realistic. The only thing you can control is your effort, and once you start doing the right things every single day, you can only get better.”
That, of course, begins in the weight room, and with film. Then, it’s about hitting the field every day for practice with the intent of winning each rep – never quitting until you beat the man next to you. It’s only when you achieve that, that you can think about the improvement.
“He just has to come to work every day and work,” Phair said. “Down-the-road goals are fine to have, but they can’t be your focus. It has to be what you’re going to do today to get where you need to go, and making daily improvements.”
Once June 30th hits and the REDBLACKS kick-off against the Edmonton Elks, the team will have had a full two weeks since they last played a live snap. With all that time between games, you can bet that Onyeka and the entire roster will be rearing to go in front of their home crowd at TD Place.