Continuing a winning culture at UNT

Written by: 
Megan Middleton

Derek Akunne (Photo by Michael Clements)Tough, tenacious, relentless – and fast.

That's how Head Coach Dan McCarney describes Mean Green football's Derek Akunne when he's on the field.

"Some guys run fast, but they don't play the game fast," McCarney says. "Derek Akunne plays one speed -- and that's full speed, all the time."

This summer two magazines -- Athlon Sports and Phil Steele's College Football Preview -- listed Akunne as a pre-season all-conference first team linebacker. In 2013, he also made honorable mention all-conference linebacker, and he finished last season tied for second on the team with 90 tackles.

Those who know Akunne say in addition to his passion for the game, he also has incredible character and a standout work ethic on and off the field.

"He's been a model citizen, model football player, model student," McCarney says. "Any North Texas fan or alumnus would really enjoy having this young man in their home."

Mean Green fans can see Akunne's hustle and drive in action when the 2014 UNT football season kicks off next month. The first game of the season is Aug. 30 in Austin against the University of Texas Longhorns. The home opener against SMU is Sept. 6.

As Akunne prepares to start his senior year, he's hoping the team can build on the momentum it generated last year during a winning 9-4 season that was capped off with an emotional 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl win. Those nine wins were the most in a single season for the UNT football team since 2003.

"We know the past, and we want to keep improving," Akunne says. "We want to just keep improving and make North Texas a constant contender every year. That's the goal."

Family support

Akunne was born in Dallas to parents who came to the United States from Nigeria for better opportunities and "so that we could have a better life," Akunne says.

That heritage shaped him and his siblings -- two of whom are pursuing degrees in the medical field.

"My parents are always on us hard to study," Akunne says. "They're always talking about the things they did in Nigeria and how they had to struggle. I think that really pushed us. We didn't want to make it so they came over for no reason. So we all wanted to be successful. That really pushed us and motivated us."

Akunne's older sister is in nursing school at Prairie View A&M University near Houston, and his older brother attends pharmacy school at Texas Southern University in Houston. While Akunne hopes to have a shot at the NFL after graduation, he also is preparing for a future career in physical therapy.

"I know they're really proud of us," he says. "They're really excited about what we're doing and our futures."

It was his older brother, Clinton, who he looks to as a role model, who first turned him on to football after he spent most of his childhood playing soccer.

"Usually whatever he liked, I liked too, or tried to do," he says.

Aside from his brother's influence, he also enjoyed the physicality of the sport -- it was a nice change of pace from soccer.

It was around the ninth grade when he knew he'd fallen for football.

"I started realizing that I was actually pretty good," he says. "It started becoming really fun. At a certain point, when the majority of time football's on your mind in some type of way, that's how you know you really love it."

He played for North Garland High School before graduating and enrolling at UNT in 2011 as part of McCarney's first recruiting class.

Succeeding at UNT

Akunne had several options when it came to picking a university. Colorado State University, Western Kentucky University and the Air Force Academy all wanted him, but UNT came out on top. He chose UNT, in part, because of the atmosphere.

"I really liked it when I came on my visit, and I knew this is where I wanted to go," he says. "The people on campus, the different demographics -- there's a lot of different people, and everybody fits in, and I really liked that."

It was also close to Garland, where he grew up.

"I knew I could go home whenever I needed to and I wouldn't be too far away from my family, and they could come see me play whenever they wanted," he says. "That was one of the big factors."

Initially Akunne was a computer engineering major, but that changed when he found a better fit.

"I decided to change to kinesiology so I could pursue physical therapy school. I connected with that more," he says.

He likes the idea of helping people with their injuries because of his own experience with sports injuries and rehab.

Academics are a priority for Akunne. In addition to working hard for a career in physical therapy, he also sees how succeeding in the classroom can mean success on the field.

"If I'm stressing over schoolwork (and) not getting my work done, I think it's going to affect me from a football standpoint as well," he says. "I won't be able to focus as well as I need to, and it's just going to create a distraction for football."

One of Akunne's favorite professors, Jeanette Krzewinski-Malone, a lecturer in kinesiology, saw Akunne's hard work firsthand in two of her courses.

She says he sat at the front of the class to be less distracted, was diligent in his work and very polite.

"Derek was just a great student," Krzewinski-Malone says, noting his good grades. "He put in the effort and study time to get those kinds of results."

With a grade point average of greater than 3.2, he's part of the reason the Mean Green football team had the highest GPA in Conference USA during the fall 2013 semester.

McCarney has worked to change players' mindset about classwork, emphasizing the importance of academic commitment.

"The culture has been changed," McCarney says. "And I'm as proud of that as much as anything since I've taken this job. And it's guys like Derek Akunne who have bought in completely and not (had) one issue academically. He really takes pride in his academic work."

Academics were important to Akunne even before he joined the team because of his parents' positive influence.

"It was very easy to tell, the first time I went into his home to recruit him around his mom and dad, that there's no nonsense when it comes to school and academics," McCarney says.

Akunne credits his parents' lessons about taking pride in your work for his academic success.

They taught him, "You want to put your all and good effort into everything because it's a reflection of yourself," he says.

His advice to other athletes or students is to avoid procrastinating and cramming and to not be afraid to ask for help when feeling overwhelmed.

He says he balances being a student and an athlete by being efficient with time and making sacrifices.

"When you have free time, you want to just relax and go hang out with your friends. Sometimes you just can't do that," he says. "You've got to just get your work done … and you'll feel better afterward."

On the field

Akunne will never forget Halloween night 2013 at Apogee Stadium.

The stakes were high -- a win against Rice University meant the Mean Green would be eligible for a bowl game for the first time in a decade. Before a crowd of more than 22,000 in the stands, the team beat Rice 28-16 -- on national television.

"Just the feeling after the game, after we won … Everybody was excited," he says. "It's really hard to explain, but I'll never forget that game."

It felt like a weight was lifted off the team's shoulders to finally be bowl eligible, he says.

"It was just motivation to keep going for more," he says. "The season wasn't over yet. We knew we could do more."

Not only did the team get to a bowl game, it won 36-14 over the University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- the third bowl championship in UNT history. Fans rushed the field in excitement.

"To go on and win it and to win it decisively, I think that just put a cap on the season and really showed the improvement that we'd made," Akunne says.

Being a part of the Mean Green for the last three years has been an honor, he says.

He praised the coaches, like defensive coordinator John Skladany, but particularly "Coach Mac," who he credits with laying the foundation for the brotherhood on the team. Learning from former teammate Zach Orr, who he calls "one of the best linebackers in North Texas history," helped him as well.

"The experience I've gained just from being here and being around these coaches and my teammates," Akunne says, "I'll remember this the rest of my life."

Orr, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens, says Akunne is very smart -- as a player and a person. He says he picks up things on the defense and the football field "faster than anyone I've seen."

He is "always the person who is the perfect role model for younger guys who are coming in, a guy you can go to and get help with your classes or a guy you can talk to," Orr says.

Current teammate and senior Cyril Lemon, who also was named by Athlon Sports to the preseason all-conference team, says Akunne is a tough guy, great leader and model student-athlete.

"No matter what he does, he does it to 100 percent, and he does it to his full potential," says Lemon, also chosen by Phil Steele's magazine as a pre-season All-America pick. "He's just one of those guys you want on the team and one of those guys you want to be around even off the field."

Akunne has established himself as a leader on and off the field and doesn't accept mediocrity, McCarney says.

"It makes it so gratifying and so fulfilling as a head coach, and it keeps you going in this profession when you get a chance to coach guys like Derek Akunne," he says.

What's ahead

Akunne and his teammates are ready to get started and prove last season wasn't a fluke.

The maturity and experience from last year's seniors helped spur the team on to success, but Akunne says with hard work, this season's team can pick up where they left off.

"You always lose the senior class," he says. "You always have a new team. You have to create a new identity every year."

Fans can look forward to big hits and exciting games this season, he says. He's most looking forward to the first two games -- particularly the one against Texas.

"It's going to be exciting to go there and play," he says. "There's something about being an underdog as well that's exciting. I like playing those games. You have something extra to prove."

While he doesn't make predictions, Akunne believes the Mean Green has the potential for another bowl win. Lemon says he also hopes a conference championship ring is in the cards for the team.

Ticket sales are strong headed into the new season, McCarney says, and there is a lot of energy around UNT football. In three seasons under McCarney, who was part of dramatic turnarounds at several college football programs, the Mean Green went from 1-16 at home to 12-5.

"There's just so much positive momentum going in this program," McCarney says. "It just feels different. People look at you different. They listen to you more. They take you more serious.

"Now that we've experienced some great success this past season, and obviously did things that nobody expected we could do outside of our football family, let's do it again," he says. "Let's find a way to do it again with a new football team and a new season."

For Akunne, he's looking forward to continuing the winning culture that's been created at UNT and to show the improvement the team has made.

"I'm really excited," Akunne says. "This is my last year. Time has flown by really fast. I'm just excited to get going and get back to work and keep improving on what we did last year."

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