Kenny Anunike ranks second nationwide­—and best in the ACC—in sacks this season.
Kenny Anunike ranks second nationwide­—and best in the ACC—in sacks this season.

For a Duke defense that ranked 113th out of 120 Division I teams last year with just 12 sacks, it was a bit surprising to see the Blue Devils get through an experienced Stanford offensive line and sack Heisman trophy frontrunner Andrew Luck twice. Even more surprising was the guy who managed to put the highly-touted signal caller on his backside on both occasions.

Kenny Anunike, a 6-foot-5, 250-lb redshirt junior in his first year as a full-time starter at defensive end, was never supposed to be on that side of the ball. Despite wide-ranging interest from Big Ten programs to Stanford and the Ivy League schools, the Galena, Ohio, native made his first official visit to Duke, immediately developing a bond that other programs couldn’t overcome.

“My visit to Duke set the bar high,” Anunike said. “I immediately fell in love with [head coach David] Cutcliffe and [assistant head coach Ron] Middleton. They made it feel like home here.”

The midwesterner arrived on campus as a playmaking tight end after going both ways in high school as a tight end and linebacker. The coaching staff decided to redshirt him for the 2008 season, but that became a moot point when Anunike suffered a knee injury­­­—just one of many health obstacles he has battled—that would require midseason surgery.

After a nondescript redshirt freshman year where he played only on special teams, Cutcliffe called the youngster into his office for a meeting. Anunike remembers this meeting vividly because he was completely caught off guard by the news. What he anticipated to be a pep talk turned into an announcement that he would be changing positions. Instead of continuing to compete for repetitions at a crowded tight end spot, he would be joining the ranks of a much thinner defensive line.

“It was all of a sudden,” Anunike said. “Give me your offensive playbook, here is a defensive playbook, learn it. I definitely took the challenge to heart because I wanted to help out the team.”

Cutcliffe remembers that day a little differently, as he felt the switch was definitely a change that his young player was not immediately happy with. The motivation for the move was that the coaching staff felt that he was struggling with some of the complexities of the offense, and his big, powerful frame would be better suited to the defensive side of the football.

“You get trapped in assignment football sometimes, and it slows you down,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s an amazingly-explosive athlete, so I felt like he would be a good reaction football player.”

Despite battling minor injuries for most of his sophomore campaign, Anunike did start in the season opener against Elon and saw considerable action in every contest. For the season, he finished with 23 tackles, two quarterback pressures and one forced fumble, modest but promising numbers for a physical specimen who puts up a team-high 450 pounds on the bench press.

But, then, the injury bug struck again. The defensive end missed the contact portion of 2011 spring drills while recovering from another knee surgery.

The 2011 regular season, however, has been everything but a struggle to this point. Anunike has recorded four sacks through three games, which is good for second in the nation and tops in the ACC. This immediate success has Anunike excited and passionate about his new home on the defensive line.

“I always wanted to score touchdowns,” he said. “I love catching the ball and making plays. But, coach Cutcliffe got me addicted to hitting the quarterback too. I think that’s even better than scoring touchdowns.”

Anunike is the only Blue Devil who has recorded a sack this year. For the unit to really make a big impact, Sydney Sarmiento, Justin Foxx and the rest of the rotation will need to step up, and Anunike has taken it upon himself to mentor the unproven defensive front.

“There are a lot of young guys on the line that I need to be a mentor to as one of the experienced guys,” Anunike said. “I know what it is like to be in their shoes. Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk mentored me, and it made the learning curve less steep.”

If the team’s sack leader can keep it up he will likely see some double teams, which will create opportunity for the other pass rushers to help solidify the unit. Regardless, we can expect to see more of the same out of a hungry Anunike, who couldn’t be more thrilled he ended up on defense.

“I’m not content, I want more,” he said. “I’m not going to be complacent. I’m going to give you all I got on the field. Then, when the dust settles, we’ll see where [the sack total] is.”