Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Cyrus Kouandjio committed to Alabama shortly after the Crimson Tide won the BCS national title. In fact, Auburn had just won the national title.
For those who question the durability of Cyrus Kouandjio , who say the Alabama offensive tackle is setting himself up for embarrassment by attending this week’s NFL draft in New York even though he could fall as far as the second round, he simply offers a shrug and a smile.
Kouandjio already faced his toughest critic in the spring of 2012. Alone in his room, the then-sophomore stared into a mirror with teary eyes, silently enduring his negative thoughts following a subpar performance in his first practice since he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.
“Spring ball was the toughest part of my life because I didn’t know my body anymore; it was alien to me,” Kouandjio said. “I was like, ‘Is this going to be the end of me? Am I going to be average now?’ But I made a decision. I didn’t care what happened; I didn’t care how tough it is. My knee wasn’t going to hold me back.”
By breaking through that mental barrier, Kouandjio has become an almost impenetrable force, totaling 14 pancake blocks and allowing just 11 / 2 sacks during the 2013 regular season to earn first-team all-American honors. But following a poor performance in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, the DeMatha alum is again faced with the challenge of proving he’s ready to compete at an elite level.
While it’s safe to say the 6-foot-7, 322-pound Kouandjio was born to play football, the Cameroon native and son of a former elite soccer player encountered an immense learning curve when he first took to the gridiron as a sophomore at DeMatha in 2008.
“His first time putting on equipment, he had his hip pads where his thigh pads should be and his knee pads where his butt pads should be,” said DeMatha football Coach Elijah Brooks, who served as the team’s running backs coach during Kouandjio’s high school career. “It’s crazy to see a kid not know anything about the sport and see where he is now.”
Blessed with athletic ability and versatility as well as strong footwork from his soccer days, Kouandjio and his older brother, Arie, manned the right and left tackle positions, respectively, for the Stags’ run-based attack. After Arie graduated, Kouandjio moved to the left tackle spot for his senior season, in which he garnered more than 60 scholarship offers and ranked as the nation’s top offensive lineman.
“Besides his great size, Cyrus has a tremendous first step,” former DeMatha coach Bill McGregor said. “Once he gets into you, he’ll steamroll you. He’s the prototype when it comes to what you look for in an offensive lineman.”
The attention built to a crescendo on National Signing Day in February 2011 as ESPN cameras lined DeMatha’s gym in anticipation of Kouandjio’s pick from among Alabama, Auburn and New Mexico. With Arie already enrolled at Alabama and despite Auburn having just won the BCS national championship, the thought was Kouandjio would follow in his brother’s footsteps. But the highly touted prospect surprised both the audience and himself by committing to Auburn on national television, leading to an awkward pause from the gathered crowd and a visible gulp from the uncertain Kouandjio.
“Two days before I had to make a decision, I had just left Auburn’s campus, so I didn’t have time to really sit down and think it through,” Kouandjio said. “I felt pressured, so I just came up with an answer for the people because I seen all these cameras in my face. But I knew in my heart that I did not know really where I wanted to go.”
After remaining in limbo for two days, Kouandjio told his family he would sign with Auburn the next morning. But he again changed his mind after receiving what he calls a “sign from my Father in heaven” to go to Alabama.
The validity of Kouandjio’s revelation surfaced midway through his freshman year at Alabama, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury — this just several weeks after Arie injured both of his knees so severely that doctors said he would never play again.
The injuries led to a period that Kouandjio deems both “sickening” for the intense rehab sessions and “glorious” for the strong bond it fused between him and his older brother.
“It was crazy, but I’m so glad Cyrus was there because he helped push me back,” said Arie, who has one year of eligibility left at Alabama after redshirting as a freshman. “Me and him have a warrior mind-set, which is hard to find in other people.”
Kouandjio started all 14 games at left tackle as a sophomore, allowing just 31 / 2 sacks. He capped the season with three pancake blocks in a dominant performance against Notre Dame in the 2012 BCS national championship game.
With praise again being showered upon Kouandjio, he made a vow to stop reading anything written about himself, narrowing his focus during a junior season in which he started alongside Arie, who manned the left guard spot.
“[The news] had too much control on my life,” Kouandjio said. “If it was a good thing, I think, ‘Oh, I’m the truth,’ and it gives you a sense of pride. If it was bad, it might bring me down. I didn’t feel like all my attention was on football.”
So when Kouandjio led an offensive line that opened holes for Alabama’s school-record 5,903 yards from scrimmage, he blocked out the buzz. And when he struggled to slow down Oklahoma defender Eric Striker, who had three sacks in an upset of the Crimson Tide in January’s Sugar Bowl, Kouandjio publicly apologized and took it as a teaching moment.
He has taken a similar approach to the NFL draft, turning a deaf ear to the analysts who both laud his size and lament his technical flaws.
“He’s just not where he should be, and he probably should have gone back to school. Strike that. He definitely should have gone back to school,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said during a recent conference call. “I think if you wind up getting him early second round, then it’s a pretty good deal. . . . We could be talking down the road three years about a good starting tackle in the National Football League.”
Six years ago, when Kouandjio took to the DeMatha practice field with no knowledge of what a drive block was, the idea of playing professional football seemed silly. Now the 20-year-old is on a mission to make the naysayers look equally absurd for questioning his rare blend of size and athleticism.
“I’m wired different, so I see it all as a challenge,” Kouandjio said. “Whatever they’re saying, I made a decision a long time ago that I’m not going to let my knee or what people say have power over my football career. I did it then, and I’m going to do it again.”
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