Caleb Benenoch's Journey of Emigration from Nigeria to the NFL Gridiron

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 11, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 21:  Caleb Benenoch #74 of the UCLA Bruins prepare to block Kylie Fitts #11 of the Utah Utes during the first half of a college football game at Rice Eccles Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
George Frey/Getty Images

Fourteen years ago, Caleb Benenoch began a journey with an ending even he couldn't imagine. A journey only Hollywood filmmakers could script. 

The UCLA offensive lineman is on the verge of being selected in April's NFL draft and playing football at the highest levela career path spurred long ago by his family's decision to emigrate from Nigeria to the United States.  

"I don’t know the last time I had a frown on my face," Benenoch said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "I just smile so much. At EXOS [formerly Athletes' Performance] every day, our strength coach told me he always sees me smiling. I’m super-blessed.

"I remember the moment I fell in love with football. I was in fifth grade watching Vince Young lead the Texas Longhorns to the national championship. I stayed up past my bedtime to watch the game. That was the day I decided to play football in college and, hopefully, play in the league.

"This is the most beautiful game I’ve ever played or seen. To see how far it has taken me and everything I’ve accomplished, it’s just awesome."

Football is certainly a beautiful game, but it's not considered "The Beautiful Game." Soccer actually led the offensive lineman to his current station in life. 

Unlike other young boys in Texas, Benenoch wasn't bred to perform on the gridiron. He took a different path to play the sport he fell head over heels in love with a decade ago. 

Benenoch and his family came to the United States in 2002 at the behest of his father, David.

"My dad wanted us to go to college in America," the younger Benenoch explained. "The whole immigration process was based on education. The process to attend a university became much easier if you attended elementary, junior and high school in the United States. This became the basis of the move."

Benenoch's father founded and still spreads his message at The Communion Church in Lagos, Nigeria. His time with his family is limited due to his responsibilities and travel schedule, but he made sure to instill an appreciation for different cultures early in the lives of two sons and two daughters

As a child, Benenoch traveled to Denmark, France, Germany and Switzerland before his family finally settled in Katy, Texas. 

"My father was really big on understanding different cultures," he said. "When we moved [to Texas], the transition wasn’t as big as some assume due to how much we were already exposed to as kids."

However, one massive cultural difference didn't translate once the eight-year-old immigrant attempted to build relationships with his new classmates. 

"As I tried to make friends, I noticed everyone played football," Benenoch remembered. "They were always going to practice. So I asked my mom to sign me up for football.

"She initially thought she was signing me up for soccer. I also assumed it was soccer since I didn’t initially know anything about the sport. She signed me up.

"The first day became a big shock for her."

A simple misunderstanding eventually turned into a career path. The third-grader, who picked up the sport for the first time, eventually developed into a 4-star recruit, per 247Sports. The developing blocker held at least 23 scholarship offers, including those from the in-state Longhorns and Baylor Bears. 

But Benenoch decided to become a member of the UCLA Bruins due to Jim Mora's coaching staff. The honeymoon in Los Angeles didn't last long, though. 

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

For offensive linemen, one usually has a successful game when his name isn't called during a contest. If this occurs, it often means a defensive lineman hasn't beaten any of his blocks. 

Those big boys up front prefer to work in anonymity. 

For the Nigerian-born blocker, his first introduction to the realities of college football's spotlight came for all of the wrong reasons. Instead of remaining anonymous, Benenoch earned early notoriety. 

In just his eighth start as a true freshman, officials ejected UCLA's right tackle for throwing a punch at USC Trojans linebacker J.R. Tavai. 

"After that incident, Coach Mora and I sat down," Benenoch said. "He told me, 'You’re going to be a good player, and we love you here. That’s not you. You let your emotions get to you in that situation. We can’t afford to have you missing games so don’t get too hot. Don’t let a bad situation get too big for you. Don’t let an opponent draw you into a situation where it costs the team.'

"It was a selfish act. I didn’t think about the future or winning the game against our rival. I played like five snaps that day as the starting right tackle.

"It was the only game in which I received an ejection. It helped me learn how to control my emotions and just play through the end of the whistle, because everything else will take care of itself."

Over the course of his career, Benenoch started 35 straight games during his three seasons on campus. He became a staple at right tackle. 

Each year, the Bruins offensive line also improved. 

In 2013 and '14, UCLA surrendered a combined 76 sacks. During Benenoch's junior campaign, defenses only got to the team's quarterbacks 14 times in 524 dropbacks. 

Improvement came during the offseason when he and fellow offensive tackle Conor McDermott took their preparation to another level. 

"My whole thing became overall consistency with my technique," Benenoch said. "Conor and I concentrated on being consistent every play, because we knew we were talented enough to block anyone in the country.

"It became about doing it every single play. We believed if we played well up front, everyone on offense would play well."

Considering the Bruins started a true freshman, Josh Rosen, at quarterback, going from 40 to 14 sacks surrendered over a one-year period was outstanding. UCLA skidded to an 8-5 finish, but the offensive line's improvement was impossible to miss. 

Once the 2015 season came to a close, Benenoch had a decision to make. As a junior with another year of eligibility, he could have continued his upward trend into a final season at UCLA. 

Instead, the lineman decided to pursue an NFL career. 

"I looked back on my season and spoke with [offensive line] Coach [Adrian] Klemm about this extensively," Benenoch said. "I discussed it with my family as well. I simply felt I have the ability and readiness to play at the next level.

"It’s been a dream of mine to compete in the NFL for a very long time after growing up in Texas. It’s what every kid dreams of doing, and I had an opportunity to come out as a junior. I didn’t want to wait another year. I want to compete with the guys I watched on Sunday. I want to compete against J.J. Watt and Von Miller. These are the guys I watched and look up to, and I’ll get an opportunity to compete because I have the ability to do so.

"In high school, I played against Danielle Hunter, who went on to play defensive end for LSU. He made the early jump to the NFL as well and made the All-Rookie team after producing at a high level for the Minnesota Vikings. I look at him and those guys I played against in high school and see them make the jump knowing I can do the same."

Benenoch's decision to declare early for the draft might have been surprising, but his workout at the NFL combine in Indianapolis turned heads. 

The 311-pound offensive tackle became one of three offensive linemen to break the five-second barrier in the 40-yard dash. Benenoch also posted an impressive 10-yard split, as another former Bruin, Datone Jones, noted on Twitter: 

Datone Jones @IAM_Dat_One

It's a reason we are in the top 2. In today's drills. More Bruins to come @MikeMayock @CalebBenenoch @jakebrendel https://t.co/rIviGGUKOh

More importantly, the right tackle looked smooth and fluid during positional drills. His performance surely boosted his stock after entering the process as a potential late-round pick. 

"I spent a lot of time at EXOS in Arizona before the combine and put on 20 pounds since the season ended," Benenoch said. "I wanted to get bigger, faster and stronger to show what I could do.

"It’s been a big help. As an offensive lineman at UCLA, I don’t think our group got the respect we deserved based on the work we put in and the success we experienced this past season."

A player can be strong in the weight room, but it doesn't necessarily translate to the field. Functional football strength is absolutely vital for a blocker to be successful at the professional level. 

Benenoch usually weighed somewhere between 290 to 295 pounds on game days. His increased girth only added to a closer attention to detail. 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Offensive linemen Willie Beavers #3 of Western Michigan and Caleb Benenoch #4 of UCLA participate in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"Functional strength for me came from working with Coach [Alex] Gibbs, improving my technique, getting my pad level down, sinking my hips and doing all of those things every single day to improve that aspect of my game."

If a Mount Rushmore of offensive line coaches existed, Gibbs would be on it. He is the godfather of zone blocking. 

Benenoch turned into a sponge around the blocking guru. 

"We watched my college tape, and you could see different areas where he was really hard on me because he saw my potential," the young lineman said. "He rode me pretty hard every day. I loved it, because it made me better.

"He stressed pass protection and consistency in the pass game with everyone. He says, 'It’s a passing league now. If you want to make a team and be successful, you must be able to pass block.'

"So, we drilled those aspects a lot. We ran one-on-ones with the defensive linemen at EXOS every single day. We concentrated on keeping our hands right. He’s a stickler for not dropping your hands, getting a good punch and not catching, keeping your head out of pass pro while also working on footwork: 45, vertical and up-kicks. He added techniques to my tool box."

With improved technique and 20 added pounds of good weight, NFL organizations can view Benenoch in multiple ways. 

At UCLA, the former 4-star recruit started at both guard and right tackle, but he primarily served as a strong-side tackle. 

Could teams view him as a left tackle? It's possible. Benenoch played through a knee injury during the entirety of his sophomore campaign. If not for the injury, he—not McDermott—would have solidified the blind side. 

"Not many know this, but after my freshman season during spring ball I was going to be UCLA’s starting left tackle," Benenoch said. 

"I started at left tackle all spring. During the third day of fall camp, I tore my right lateral meniscus. I couldn’t get the push I needed in a left stance. Instead of missing the year and redshirting, I elected to move to right tackle. I played there for the rest of the year and sucked it up until the season was over."

At 6'5" and 311 pounds with good movement skills, the lineman's versatility is a positive for NFL teams that usually carry only seven active linemen on game days. 

Considering where he started, it's amazing Benenoch is on the doorstep of the NFL

The Nigerian product made tremendous strides over the years after signing up for the wrong sport, eventually falling in love with it, overcoming a very poor decision early in his career, playing through a potentially season-ending injury and now stepping into the NFL. 

"This sport has taken me places I’ve never been without it," he said. "I met a lot of people and traveled to places I wouldn’t have.

"It helped my academics. I got into schools like Northwestern and UCLA: top collegiate programs not just on the field but academically as well.

"This sport has been so big throughout my life. It will give me a chance to provide for my family. It’s been a real blessing for something I didn’t know much about originally. It’s funny how God works, and I try to honor the sport every time I step onto the field."

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.


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