FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - Sam Acho is not your average football player in oh so many ways.
But however all those aspects of this interesting, multi-faceted man add up, the result is a versatile, fast, smart-as-whip outside linebacker who loves to get after the quarterback.
A fourth-round draft pick last year out of Texas, where he earned a business degree with a double major in business honors and marketing, Acho is firmly in place at outside linebacker, half of the young OLB tandem that has O'Brien Schofield on the other side.
They are the bookends of a defense that expects to be the strength of this team, which is 23rd in the AP Pro32 preseason ranking.
A year ago, as Acho arrived as a rookie, people wondered if he could adjust to a 3-4 defense. Now, people wonder just how long it will take for him to be an NFL star.
After all, the 6-foot-3, 257-pound linebacker is just 23 years old.
"This year I feel a lot better, a lot more comfortable, more relaxed than last year," Acho said after the team practiced Thursday. "Last year it was a little bit of confusion trying to understand the defense, what this whole 3-4 scheme is all about. This year I'm a lot more confident, a lot more relaxed and have a chance to make plays."
Not that he didn't make plays last season. After playing defensive end at Texas, he had to learn the nuances that come with outside linebacker, including dropping into pass coverage at times. But his main goal and love remains attacking the quarterback.
Because of the lockout, he had to learn on the fly in the preseason and the early part of the regular season.
"I like it a lot," he said of the linebacker job. "My biggest thing is just trying to rush the quarterback and get sacks, get pressure on the quarterback. Whether you're doing it at defensive end or as an outside linebacker, I mean we have guys at every position that do that."
Acho won the William V. Campbell Award, known as the "Academic Heisman," with a GPA of 3.6 01 in the business honors college at Texas.
He said his intelligence helps his game "more than some people think, because you have to be able to understand defenses. But it's one thing to be smart, it's another to be football smart. So many guys on this team are football smart. That's all you need."
Even though he didn't start until midseason and barely played in some early games, Acho finished second on the team with seven sacks, one fewer than team leader Calais Campbell, along with a team-high four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Acho's move into the starting lineup coincided with a turnaround for the defense, which was the main reason Arizona won seven of its last nine to finish 8-8 after an ugly six-game losing streak.
"It kind of clicked for us about halfway through the season," said Acho, who stays late on the field for extra work that culminated Thursday with wind sprints with veteran outside backer Clark Haggans.
"Once we took responsibility for the defense, we said 'This defense is going to be our defense. It's not coach (coordinator Ray) Horton's defense, it's our defense."
That sense of responsibility, Acho's work ethic and his intelligence have helped him quickly adjust to the pro game.
" He's a smart man. I think he works at it very hard," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "There's no question that he's in the right spot at the right time a pretty good portion of the time, and that's important at that position. When we talk about football players, you want smart, tough, disciplined football players, and he fits all three of those categories."
Then there are Acho's life experiences, which gives him a perspective other players may lack.
Each summer, including this year, he returns to Nigeria to work for his father's Living Hope Ministries. Acho was born in Nigeria and moved as a child with his parents to Texas, where his father, Dr. Sonny Acho, is a prominent physiologist and minister. The family returns each year to provide medical help to people whose lives are ravaged by poverty.
The contingent includes Sam's brother Emmanuel, now a rookie linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.
"Life experience has definitely helped me on the field," Sam Acho said. "Taking the trips with Living Hope Ministries, the foundation that my dad started, really helped me keep a good foundation and keep a great perspective on life. I get to chance to play a game that I love, while there are millions of Africans that have nothing."
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