In 2018, facemasks stood no chance against Texas A&M defensive lineman Justin Madubuike.
In his second game playing in the Aggies’ rotation, Madubuike received a personal foul for pulling the helmet off Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Caleb Evans. The following week, his grip separated the facemask from Alabama running back Damien Harris’ headgear.
So it might surprise some that with a bright smile and a soft-spoken tone, Madubuike described himself as “chill.”
“I’ll just be chilling,” the junior said. “I’ll be watching movies. I like to shop. I like to hang out with my family and talk with my family, just be a normal guy.”
He has become a force in the A&M defensive front, where he will be the only returning starter this season.
“It’s just being a leader, just leading the guys towards the right step, leading by example, speaking when something needs to be said, me being an older guy,” Madubuike said. “Now a lot of young guys are looking up to me, and I recognize that, so I try to emphasize the right things to do on and off the field.”
Last season, Madubuike finished seventh on the team in total tackles with 40, including 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Only senior defensive ends Kingsley Keke and Landis Durham had more sacks with seven and 6.5, respectively. Madubuike also forced three fumbles and recorded five quarterback hurries.
Without Durham and Keke, as well as defensive tackle Daylon Mack and linebackers Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka, A&M’s young defense will follow the lead of Madubuike, who said he didn’t see himself in this position last year. While he played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2017, he recorded just 20 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. It was a distant shade of the production he achieved at McKinney North, where he had 75 tackles, 35 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks as a junior in 2014.
Despite entering A&M as a consensus four-star recruit, Madubuike said he continually sees himself as an underdog.
“I always feel like I have a chip on my shoulder, even since high school, and the recruiting always felt like I had a chip,” he said. “I just believe in hard work, and, like, words don’t mean nothing — your actions do.”
A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher says he’s continued to see that work ethic as the defensive lineman becomes a face of the program.
“Madubuike, of course, had an outstanding year last year, and I think he’s in that same mold coming on, and he has to take another step like you always do when you grow,” Fisher said. “He seems to be doing that now.”
That includes honing his aggression that flips on when he enters the field. Madubuike described a practice in which he made a clean move past an offensive lineman and ended up making contact with quarterback Kellen Mond, knocking the Aggies’ starter to the ground. The response from Fisher was firm, Madubuike said with a smile.
“Get the hell off the field!” the lineman remembered Fisher shouting. “If you do that again you’re kicked off the team.”
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Madubuike was part of A&M’s representation at Southeastern Conference Media Days in July, which called for a fashionable outfit. Madubuike said he typically has to head to the Galleria in Houston to find options that fit his frame.
“It was supposed to be like this color, but more checker, but they didn’t have something that fit me in my size, so I just went with this and I think it turned out good,” he said with a smile.
Size and aggression aside, Madubuike continues to show that “chill,” youthful side while being a leader for A&M. When in Los Angeles for a trip to the ESPYs, Madubuike met Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson, who gave him a run for his money on aggressiveness.
“He shook the heck out of my hand,” Madubuike said. “I was like, ‘Dang, AP. Jeez, bro. Don’t break my hand.’”