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Ade Aruna’s remarkable journey is far from over

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The 2018 NFL Draft prospect talks about getting his start in football, what brought him to Tulane and his future in the NFL

NCAA Football: Navy at Tulane Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The journey to becoming an NFL Draft prospect hasn’t been simple for Ade Aruna. He spent the first 16 years of his life in Nigeria before moving to the United States to play basketball. Before it was over, he had attended three different high schools in that short period of time, moving around the country from Alabama to Indiana. Aruna’s first two schools didn’t even have a football team, leaving him to attend football camps beginning in his sophomore year to scratch the itch. He finally got on the field as a senior at La Lumiere High School which led to a scholarship at Tulane. Leading up to his senior season of college, Aruna was given yet another hurdle: switch from defensive end, the only position he had ever known, to outside linebacker in the Green Wave’s new scheme.

You can understand if those who believe in Aruna as a prospect want to throw out a senior season in which he converted to a 3-4 outside linebacker and produced just two sacks and three tackles for loss. After all, Aruna had just four seasons of real football under his belt, all of which were spent as a defensive end. That position isn’t just where Aruna enjoyed his best seasons, it’s where he’s always wanted to line up.

“Since I’d been going to camps during my sophomore year, I’d been taught how to play defensive end and that’s what I wanted to play.” Aruna says. “The guy I was living with when I went to high school in Alabama, he showed me a Julius Peppers video for the first time, playing defensive end and sacking the quarterback, and I just loved that. I loved the joy in that. That’s who I wanted to be like, that’s the position I wanted to play, I wanted to sack the quarterback.”

For as long as he was watching football, Aruna always had his sights set on sacking the quarterback. As a power forward in basketball, Aruna played against some top competition in high school, and he even scored a win over future NBA number one pick Andrew Wiggins. But those around him knew his future was on the football field.

“I wanted to play football for myself. I’d been going to camps learning about football, and I was talking to people from basketball and they advised me like, ‘Hey, you know if you try football, you’re like 6-foot-6, 6-foot-5, it’s gonna benefit you more than playing basketball.’ Not like I wasn’t a good basketball player, I was a pretty good player, I played against some people [that are] in the NBA, but I just wanted to use my ability and size on the football field. That would be an advantage for me.”

In just one season of high school football, Aruna’s size and athletic ability proved to be a great advantage: 75 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

“He was way above the talent level of people he was playing with and against, so he was going to have success no matter what,” says Chris Balawender, a former coach at La Lumiere School for over 40 years.

What makes Aruna so appealing to teams and scouts in the NFL is the same thing that made him so enticing to college recruiters as a high school senior. It wasn’t depth of experience leading Aruna to succeed, it was a relentlessness in his work ethic and raw athleticism.

“[He was] pretty raw. We taught him the basics and put him on defense, you know, a little easier than offense. We put him at defensive end and he played some tight end for us, but it takes a little longer for that skill set to develop,” Balawender says.

“He wasn’t great at catching the ball,” he adds with a laugh.

Despite being relatively new to the sport, Aruna’s senior season was enough to draw attention from Division I programs all over the country: Kentucky, N.C. State, Rutgers, Illinois, UAB and Southern Mississippi were among teams in the mix to land Aruna as a recruit. But ultimately, Tulane won the race and Aruna was headed for New Orleans. Not that he knew that at the time.

“I didn’t even know where Tulane was,” Aruna says. “I wanted to take advantage of a good education. I looked at it like ‘I want to kill two birds with one stone, if I can go to a good school, get a good education, a good degree and I don’t make it to the next level, I’ll be good.’ It was pretty straightforward with me.”

Over five years at Tulane, Aruna accomplished exactly that. On the football field, Aruna became a four-year letterman and finished his college career with 107 tackles, 19 for loss, three forced fumbles and 12 sacks. In the classroom, Aruna was named to the American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team twice, became a member of Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll during his redshirt season, and earned a Bachelor’s in Homeland Security Studies before beginning to pursue a second Bachelor’s in Public Health.

But that position switch in the final season between him and the draft may have done him no favors. The senior’s production dropped across the board and any hope of a Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game invitation was gone. However, college football’s third all-star game, the NFLPA Bowl, invited Aruna to participate in January’s game, an opportunity that he found to be incredibly beneficial.

“I was lucky enough to be among the guys that were there. What happened last year [Tulane switching to a 3-4] and when I got there it was a 4-3, so that kind of refreshed my memory about what I’ve learned over the years before we switched [to a 3-4 last year]. So I had a fun experience, I met a lot of people, had good coaching. It was a good environment, I loved it.”

Aruna finished off the week with two tackles and a tackle for loss in a 23-0 victory, using his performance as a launching pad towards his next stop in the pre-draft process, the Scouting Combine.

“When it comes to production last year, I didn’t do much and I wasn’t even thinking I would make it to the Combine. I played in the NFLPA Bowl and I was happy about that. [At the Scouting Combine] I met [Bradley Chubb] and talked for a while, I talked to [UTSA’s Marcus] Davenport, I met with a lot of people and they were good guys,” Aruna says.

“We all have an equal opportunity, that’s why everybody is there. Once you’re there it doesn’t really matter where anybody went [to school].”

Aruna was well aware that even if he wasn’t a top recruit out of high school or a top prospect in the draft, that athletically he’d be difficult to best.

“[I know] I’m going to run fast, I know I’m going to jump higher, but I think I opened everybody’s eyes when they saw what I can do. People seeing who I am and what I can do, it makes me happy as a player and it was a good experience for me overall,” Aruna says about his performance in Indianapolis, one that saw him test above the 90th percentile in the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump and the broad jump. “That kind of boosted my draft stock a little bit and I was happy about it.”

Aruna is still likely a day three selection, but one well worth taking a flyer on. The athleticism and relentlessness that saw Aruna grow from a high school senior playing his first year of football, to a Division I athlete, to a legitimate NFL Draft prospect, are the same traits that will give him a real chance at becoming a starter in the NFL. Like most prospects, Aruna’s potential will depend on the situation and the coaching on the team he ends up with. Just as importantly, whichever team selects Aruna will hopefully be doing so knowing where the pass rusher had his best seasons.

“To me, I want to be a down lineman. I want to be that 5-technique, rushing from the edge, putting my hand in the dirt, that’s what I’ve been used to my whole career,” Aruna says. “It is what it is, whoever drafts me, whatever they see me playing, that’s what I’m going to do, but I want to play [in a] 4-3.”

At just under 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds, Aruna has ideal height and weight for an edge defender. Aruna’s explosiveness and athletic ability are exceptional, and the flashes of dominance he had at Tulane aren’t anything to scoff at either. Aruna’s play on the field and personality off the field suggest he’s a prospect who will do everything possible to reach his potential in the NFL. His journey has seen him go through two different countries, three different states, three different high schools, two different sports, and multiple positions along the way. He’s been through a lot to get to this point, and as a player who is yet to even call an NFL team “home,” this may just be the beginning.