TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — To appreciate where freshman phenom Cyrus Kouandjio is now and is about to go as an Alabama football player, it helps to know where he was four years ago.
He was nowhere.
He was dressing for his first football practice in pads at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. He was lost.
“Your helmet’s supposed to fit pretty snug to your head,” said head coach Elijah Brooks, then an assistant coach. “He had the biggest helmet you can have. There was space between his cheeks and ear pads.”
Brooks chuckled as he recalled the sight.
“He had the thigh pads in the kneepads slot and vice versa,” Brooks said. “I think he was afraid to ask. Once we got him situated, he understood first how to dress for football. Then I think he was moving in the right direction. But when he first started, he had absolutely no clue what he was doing.”
Kouandjio (pronounced KWON-joe) blossomed into a 5-star offensive tackle and became one of the hottest recruits in the class of 2011. Then he became confused on signing day. He was lost. After announcing on national television that he was going to Auburn, he stopped short of signing. Three crazy days later, he signed with Alabama, joining older brother Arie with the Crimson Tide.
Now after a little more than three weeks of practice, he’s three days away from making his college debut. Not only will he play against Kent State on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, he is crazy close to starting. Star guard Barrett Jones will start this time at left tackle, but soon he might move aside and make way for the 6-foot-6, 322-pound prodigy.
“He’s a special kid,” Brooks said. “You might not see a kid that size who moves that well and is that physical for 20 years at a time.”
The choice is football
To grasp where Kouandjio is, perhaps at a threshold of prominence and dominance, it helps to go back farther than four years. It helps to go back to his father.
SAYING ABOUT CYRUS
True freshman offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was the talk of the Alabama Crimson Tide’s preseason camp. Here’s a sample of that talk. …
COACH NICK SABAN: “Cyrus is making progress. … We want to see how Cyrus plays in this game. We will play him some in the game. It will be programmed as to how he plays. We’ll kind of make a determination from there. He’s done well. A lot of these guys, when they come to college, they have very good physical ability. I think they haven’t had to pay attention to detail when it comes to technique. … Cyrus has made good progress in that area and will continue to do that. He’s a guy we’d like to see develop through the course of the year. One of the parts of his development will be to see how he responds when he gets in a game situation and plays.”
STAR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN BARRETT JONES: “Cyrus is a gamer. … When the lights come on, he’s going to do some special things. … The thing you notice most about him is he’s extremely hungry. Some guys come in these days and they kind of think they’ve arrived by achieving the 5-star status, and that’s what they’ve been working for. Cyrus is not like that. He knows he has a long way to go to be the player that he can be as far as potential. He’s been working extremely hard, and he’s always in my ear asking me questions, asking somebody questions, asking how he can get better and what he needs to work on. That’s really what you want to see as a veteran offensive lineman. I want to see guys who come in ready to work. I think that’s what I’ve been most impressed with from him.”
Jean-Claude Kouandjio is one of 37 children born to a Cameroon king. “My father had nine wives,” he explained in broken English.
But life in the Third World country wasn’t so royal. When Cyrus was 3, the family moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“I was reading about better education,” said Jean-Claude, a network engineer. “I didn’t have enough money to send my children overseas. The best plan was to move with them. We didn’t come here for sports.”
Of course, the four children started to play. First it was soccer. Then baseball, judo and basketball.
“We didn’t know about football at all,” Jean-Claude said.
But football eventually knew about his sons, and soon life was hectic in the Kouandjio household.
“I had to stop them,” Jean-Claude said. “They were jumping to three sports. I didn’t have time to drop this one at soccer or that one at basketball, you know? I made them choose only one. Arie chose football. Cyrus followed him.”
The father’s attitude had come a long way. It still had a long way to go.
“For a long time, I wasn’t open to any sports,” Jean-Claude said. “It was academics first. When I heard they could get scholarships, I decided sports were a good thing for them.
“When coaches started coming to our home and saying they would pay for college – oh, wow!”
Why he’s special
To understand how Cyrus grew from a child to a man, it helps to know that he had a personal trainer. Myron Flowers says he has trained 21 active NFL players, including San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. More than 50 Division I college athletes have come through his program in the Washington area.
Flowers started training Cyrus when he was 14.
“He was about 6-4. He was a tall kid,” Flowers said. “I wouldn’t say goofy, but he was just getting adjusted to his body.
“When he first came to the facility, I already knew what he was going to become. I liked his passion. The guys kind of joked and said, ‘Oh, man, what are you going to do with this guy?’ I said, ‘You watch.'”
“Vernon actually came back from not seeing Cyrus in two years, and he saw him and said, That’s Cyrus?'” Flowers said. “He said, Man, you weren’t lying.’ He remembered.
“He said, You’ve already arrived. You look better than some of the guys I’ve played with.'”
What makes this young player special?
“His work ethic,” Flowers said. “He’s dedicated himself toward playing football. You’re talking about a kid that has only played football for five years. … He’s one play away from starting in the SEC. Who does that? You don’t just do it because you’re big and somebody said, ‘You should play football,’ and you’d never played football.”
Another quality that stands out is confidence.
“A confident arrogant,” Flowers said. “Not cocky. Not a hot dog who thinks he’s better than everybody else. He has a certain swagger that, to me, makes you a certain player. He doesn’t like to lose. He works hard. He doesn’t like to let anybody down or fail.”
To comprehend how Cyrus nearly committed to New Mexico — New Mexico? — before letting Auburn down and signing with Alabama, it helps to go back to his football roots. They simply aren’t deep.
“You’re talking about a kid who grew up not idolizing college football,” Flowers said. “He doesn’t necessarily know the significance of programs or their tradition. It’s not like a kid who grows up and he’s been a Florida State fan all his life and he has an opportunity to get a scholarship to Florida State. … You know about bowl games. You know about past players. He didn’t have that opportunity to learn that or understand that.”
“It was never about schools,” Flowers said. “It was about the people he was meeting and the relationships he was creating. For all he knew, New Mexico was on the same level as Alabama. I never wanted to be the one to create that for him. I didn’t want to say, ‘Well, Alabama’s won 13 championships. New Mexico’s won none. Alabama’s a BCS school. New Mexico won one game last year.’ Do you understand what I mean?”
Auburn entered the Kouandjio sweepstakes late but obviously made a strong impression. Flowers was mildly surprised when Cyrus announced his original decision in front of bright lights and cameras at his school.
“The only thing that made me raise my eyebrows is that he didn’t know the night before,” Flowers said. “The only reason I anticipated him changing his mind is because when he came down off the podium, he asked me what I thought. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter what I think. You’ve made your decision.’ Him asking me that let me know that he wasn’t sure.”
Ultimately, the decision came down to family.
“His main concern was not having to compete with his brother,” Flowers said. “He didn’t want to be put in that situation. That’s why he made that rash decision.”
But there was a flip side, which is why Cyrus flipped.
“I said, ‘If this is really what you want to do, we’ll support you,” Flowers said. “But your parents who don’t know a lot about college football, you’ve put them in a situation where they can’t see you both play.'”
Kouandjio did get a quick and thorough education on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.
“I said, ‘Listen, this is serious. This is a state rivalry. This is Hatfields-McCoys. It’s not your average high-school-down-the-street rivalry,'” Flowers said.
Alabama fans are convinced Auburn was cheating and vice versa.
“Neither program cheated,” Flowers said.
Explaining the flip flop
To recognize what went down and how it went down on and between Feb. 2-5, it helps to listen to the father.
“I didn’t know about Auburn,” Jean-Claude said. “I knew about Alabama. The university where Arie was actually was wonderful.”
What did this father think when he first met Alabama coach Nick Saban?
“The wise man?” Jean-Claude said. He then raved about the discipline and balance between academics and athletics at Alabama.
So how does the father explain the dramatic events of early February?
“It’s kind of hard to explain what happened. Very difficult,” he said.
He was pressed for more.
“It was a combination of reasons. It was complex,” he said, unwilling to share much more.
“I don’t fault my kids a lot, but I just wondered if he had thought about it deeply,” Jean-Claude said. “He had to sit down and listen to what a friend was telling him, what his coach was telling him, what his family was telling him. Mainly he had to listen to what his heart was telling him to do. He needed more time to think.
“With kids like Cyrus, you guide him, but I couldn’t tell him where to go. At the end of the day, he was the one to decide.”
To move on from what happened, it helps to appreciate the fact that Cyrus Kouandjio is appreciated where he is now. He is somewhere.
He is with his brother. He is at left tackle at second-ranked Alabama, pushing hard to start. He is impressing his teammates.
“Another bell cow,” said Michael Williams, a 6-6, 269-pound junior tight end. “You don’t see too many freshmen come in like that. Great feet. Great agility. You don’t see too many 6-7, 320-pound men being able to move the way he does. He basically looks like me as a tackle, but he weighs 300. There’s a lot of power built up in there somewhere.”
“He’s a really special player,” senior center William Vlachos said. “Sometimes he looks like Orlando Pace out there at left tackle. Other times he looks like a freshman, as he should. I continue to bring him along. …
“It started this summer when we were working out. We’d walk through some plays as a group. He’d say, Hey, I heard you say a call. What does that mean? How does that apply to me.’ He’s really willing to learn … and has as much ability as anybody. He’s got a very bright future.
Much more of this and Cyrus Kouandjio may need a bigger helmet.