Patrick Onwuasor was a quiet, 210-pound, undrafted safety out of Portland State as he headed to a defensive backs meeting during Ravens rookie minicamp in May 2016. Still trying to learn his way around the Owings Mills, Md., facility, Onwuasor was intercepted by then-linebackers coach Don "Wink" Martindale.
"Hey," Martindale told him, "you're with the linebackers."
"I'm like, ‘So, y'all didn't tell me this before [I signed]?'" Onwuasor recalled with a smile. "And Wink was like, 'Look, just run to the ball. I'm going to turn you into a linebacker.'"
The move proved to be shrewd for Onwuasor and the Ravens.
After failing to make the initial 53-man roster as a rookie, Onwuasor parlayed a practice-squad spot into a quick roster promotion and 25 starts at weak-side linebacker during the past two years. Now with the free-agency departure of Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley, Onwuasor moves to middle linebacker, assuming leadership on a unit that has framed the Ravens' identity for the past two decades.
Onwuasor, affectionately known as "Peanut" -- a nickname given to him by a former youth-league basketball coach -- admitted that being a vocal leader is somewhat outside his comfort zone, and he said safeties Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson were among those who challenged him to become more vocal.
"The first thing Earl said was, ‘We're going to work on your leadership,'" Onwuasor said, recounting a meeting this past spring. "And that's something I kind of shy away from, too. I'm kind of soft-spoken."
Onwuasor, who turns 27 this month, appeared increasingly comfortable in his new role during training camp, calling out checks and directing a defense that could include as many as five new starters.
"He's going to be a great leader for us, and he knows how to make plays, big plays," linebacker Matthew Judon said. "He's been doing it since he's been here. So I have all the confidence in Peanut."
Detour Through Portland
Back in 2013, Onwuasor could not have envisioned himself in this position. He's starting in the spot held for years by Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, making roughly $3 million this season after signing a restricted free agent tender, operating a charitable foundation and running a camp for those with special needs.
Back in July 2013, a 20-year-old Onwuasor was staring at four felony drug and gun charges after a search warrant was executed at his Tucson, Ariz., apartment. Onwuasor maintained his innocence and the charges were later dropped, but he was kicked off the University of Arizona football team.
Onwuasor resurfaced at Portland State, where he became one of the top safeties in the country. He registered nine interceptions for the playoff-bound Vikings in 2015 and was a finalist for FCS Defensive Player of the Year honors, but that wasn't enough to hear his name called in the NFL Draft.
Onwuasor, a native of Inglewood, Calif., had a few offers to sign as an undrafted rookie, and he credits his agent, Cameron Foster, with steering him to Baltimore.
"The first thing [Foster] said was, ‘We're going to Baltimore,'" Onwuasor recalled after a training camp practice, his braided hair spilling off the top his head like a small fountain. "I'm like, ‘Man, I got to go to the East Coast? Like what happened to Oakland, or the 49ers, or somewhere else close to home?' And he was like, ‘No, this team fits your personality. It fits the stuff you like to do. You're a tough, physical, blue-collar player. They get players up there that are dogs. They're mean, they're tough. That will be a better fit for you.'"
Familiar Route Through Special Teams
Onwuasor first reported to the Ravens' facility as all undrafted rookies do: with the deck stacked against them, filling out the bottom lines on the depth chart.
Martindale quickly pulled Onwuasor aside, claiming him for the linebackers group based on "just how physical he played the game at the college level."
Onwuasor said he had two early mentors who had also taken the undrafted route to success with the Ravens' defense: Anthony Levine and Albert McClellan.
"They told me, the easiest way to make the Baltimore Ravens' 53: special teams," Onwuasor recalled. "You know everybody wants to play defense, but we got our defensive guys. If you want to make this team your rookie year, you got to play special teams. ... We take special teams really seriously."
"I fought every day to get on special teams," Onwuasor added, "and [coaches] saw that."
All that effort wasn't quite enough at first, though; Onwuasor was among the final roster cuts at the end of training camp. He was quickly signed back to the practice squad and was promoted to the active roster five weeks later. He played in 11 games as a rookie and finished as the team leader in special teams tackles with 11.
The next year, Onwuasor beat out Kamalei Correa for a starting spot and finished with 88 tackles, joining a fraternity of sorts that includes Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, Zach Orr and McClellan -- undrafted inside linebackers who became impact players in Baltimore.
"When Peanut came in here, he wanted to learn," said Levine, a Ravens de facto special teams captain for several years. "He was willing to learn and we just took him under our wing and treated him like a little brother. Now, he's just flourishing."
That is evident off the field, too. This past summer, Onwuasor and his Peanut's Impact Foundation hosted its first Special Olympics of Maryland football camp at Milford Mill High School, not far from the Ravens' complex.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Reign Sports
Back in Portland, Onwuasor, diagnosed with a learning disability as a child, had worked at a camp for those with special needs and befriended a man with Down syndrome named Deric Tomkins. The two became fast friends, and working with the special-needs community quickly became a central focus of Onwuasor's foundation.
Formidable Challenge Succeeding Mosley
Last year, Onwuasor had 54 tackles and a career-best 5.5 sacks in 12 starts. He forced two fumbles, both of which were returned for touchdowns by cornerback Tavon Young.
Now he assumes the middle linebacker role held by Mosley for the past five years, and how effectively Onwuasor can succeed Mosley will to a large degree dictate the success of the Ravens' defense.
Onwuasor is up to 227 pounds, still about 15 pounds lighter than Mosely -- but Martindale, now the Ravens' defensive coordinator, says Onwuasor is "a traditionally-built linebacker for this league, the way it is now."
"He's so physical," Levine said, "but he's a smart football player as well. He's vicious when it comes to playing football, and that's what you need, man, it's a violent sport. ... He's got one of, if not the, hardest punches in the NFL. The Peanut Punch? I'm telling you, it's crazy."
Onwuasor knows all about the Ravens' defensive tradition and is ready for his spot at the center of it.
"It's a reputation that we have to stand by, being tough and mean," Onwuasor said. "When you step on that grass, we want to put fear in the opponents' eyes, and let them know that we're not the ones to play with. And I think we have to keep that legacy going."
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Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 256: August 2019
Originally published Aug. 15, 2019