Page One

Stepping out of the shadows, into the spotlight

By Jared Green Daily Planet Staff
Friday September 01, 2000

Mention the name Deltha O’Neal to just about any football fan and you’ll get a response. 1999 All-American, Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, first-round NFL pick. O’Neal regularly made highlight films last season, picking off passes for touchdowns, returning kicks for touchdowns, and generally being spectacular on Saturdays. 

Now mention Chidi Iwuoma. Unless you’re talking to a die-hard Cal fan, you’ll likely get a blank stare. Playing across the field from O’Neal, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare for the tiny cornerback with Nigerian roots. He didn’t return either of his interceptions for touchdowns, and his three punt returns didn’t get him into the end zone either. 

But ask Cal head coach Tom Holmoe, and he’ll tell you a different story. 

“He actually graded out better, game by game, than Deltha last year,” Holmoe said. “Deltha was our big-play guy, but Chidi did his job very well last year.” 

Iwouma will fill many roles this year. He is the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield, and will be the Bears’ primary kick and punt return man, entrusted with providing the offense with good field position to start their drives. 

But perhaps his most important role will be as one of the experienced players whom the younger guys look up to. 

“This year, I am playing the role as a leader and inspiration for the younger players, not just for the secondary, but for the whole team,” said Iwuoma. “The coaches want me to step up and be more vocal, and I’m ready to do that. I’m ready in my senior season to do that, not just on the field, but any way possible.” 

Iwuoma’s new partner at cornerback will be sophmore LaShaun Ward, who played in all 11 games last year and has the potential to become an outstanding player. But there is no question that Iwuoma must become an impact player if the Bears are to dominate defensively like last season, when they led the Pac-10 in both scoring and total defense. 

“I’ll get the chance to get the ball in my hands, so hopefully I’ll get to make some plays there,” Iwuoma says. 

Iwuoma says he was sometimes hesitant to go for the big play last year. 

“A lot of times I’d be right there on a pick and I’d secure the tackle. I think this year I’ll work on looking for the ball a little better. I worked on those skills all summer. I’m still going to do my job — I’m not going to be a wild man out there — but I think I’ll have a better sense of where the ball is at.” 

Iwuoma has set high goals for both himself and the team. 

“I want to go to a major bowl game,” he said. “We know that we have to work for it, so a lot of guys are a lot more focused on working towards that goal and that was apparent during spring ball and during the summer... the guys are really more goal oriented towards getting to that bowl game.” 

The fact that most pre-season predictions have the Bears near the bottom of the conference gives him even more motivation. 

“Those ratings just set my goals even higher,” he says. “I pretty much just laugh at those ratings because I know that we are going to do much better, and as long as we play the way we can, we’ll finish much higher in the Pac-10.”