The calls come for Keith Millard almost every winter, when renowned strength coach Dave Spitz has a pass rusher who could use the former Viking All-Pro’s help getting ready for the NFL combine.
Millard, who played in the NFL from 1985 to 1993, initially took this year’s call with some skepticism — and then he heard Ade Aruna’s story.
He heard about a lanky kid who came to the United States from Nigeria to play basketball, until an AAU coach pulled him aside and asked him if he’d ever considered playing football. He heard about how Aruna had attended three high schools in three years, dealing with visa issues and difficult living situations before eventually trying football for the first time as a senior at La Lumiere School in Indiana.
“They kind of had to talk me into it,” Millard said. “But when they told me more about the kid and his background, I was really interested. He’s had to tough it out to get where he is today. After meeting him, I knew where he was coming from, and felt he was really hungry to do well.”
The NFL’s 1989 Defensive Player of the Year bet on Aruna, training with him for several weeks before the combine at Spitz’s California Strength facility east of Oakland. They dissected Aruna’s film from Tulane and worked on a series of simple pass-rushing moves that the 6-6 defensive end could take to the combine.
The Vikings saw potential in Aruna, and when they made him a sixth-round pick, things came full circle for Millard.
“I don’t think they even knew that I was working with him,” said Millard, who coached for four NFL teams from 2001 to ’12. “It was a coincidence. But when he was getting in the sixth round, speaking to his agent, Steve Caric, I said, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be a great thing if the Vikings picked him up?’ I thought it’d be a perfect fit.”
The Vikings are under no illusions that Aruna will develop overnight, given how new he remains to football. But in his attributes — 34 ½-inch arms, 4.6-second 40-yard dash time, 38 ½-inch vertical jump — they see the kind of prospect with whom defensive line coach Andre Patterson has struck gold before.
Just like Millard did, the Vikings figured Aruna was worth the wager.
“A year ago, he played like a 4-3 defensive end; this past year, he played like a 3-4 defensive end,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “So it’s a totally different technique and alignment. Quite honestly, he played better a year ago. But those two guys — talking about [fourth-round pick Jalyn] Holmes and him — standing there, I said, ‘That’s how they’re supposed to look: tall, long arms, athletic, fast.’
“It’s going to be a process with him, because he’s a young, raw guy. Probably everything’s going to be new: getting in the right stance, taking the right footwork, putting your hands in the right place, understanding contact point on pass rush. Really, probably everything. So it may take a while, but that’s why we’ve got a lot of other players here.”
Defense on the court, too
Aruna said he came to the U.S. because he “wanted to do something that I was going to be proud of for the rest of my life.” His family, he said, blessed him and sent him on his way.
He arrived in the Orlando area in 2010 after a strong showing at a basketball camp in his native Nigeria. Football was not on his radar.
In fact, he didn’t tell his parents he was playing football until he signed a letter of intent to play at Tulane — and then, he had to explain to them what he would be doing.
“My dad wasn’t upset; he was just curious,” Aruna said. “He doesn’t know the game. I have to tell him, ‘Dad, don’t worry. I’m the one delivering the blow, I’m not taking it. So, I’m the one taking people down, so don’t panic and don’t worry. Everything will be fine.’ As soon as I told them, they kind of said, ‘Oh yeah, you want to do whatever you want to do and we’re going to support you regardless of what it is.’ ”
If Aruna’s frame made coaches think he’d be a natural fit on a football field, it’s possibly because his style of play on a basketball court already leaned that way.
“I played old-school,” he said. “I don’t know if you watch the ’70s and ’80s basketball, but that’s how I play my own basketball. I stick to playing physical, man on man.”
One night when Aruna was in high school, he was assigned to defend a gangly guard named Andrew Wiggins.
“As soon as we got down to the stadium to play that game, my coach told me, ‘Hey, I want you to guard Andrew Wiggins. He’s going to be your assignment tonight,’ ” Aruna said. “I told him, ‘No problem, if that’s how you want it, I will get it done, just like that.’ I gave him one of the lowest scoring games of his high school career that night.
“He just had 11 points. All of the 11 points weren’t on me, because sometimes I would switch to another man. I think he only scored about six points with me guarding him throughout the game.”
Learning from Millard
In a way, Aruna’s hoops background might have endeared him to the Vikings. Zimmer’s successful partnership with Patterson has often centered on pass rushers built like Aruna, and the coach says he likes his linemen to look like basketball players.
His reach and speed will help him get around the outside, but Aruna didn’t get to show much of those skills while playing in a 3-4 defense last year. His work with Millard, which began before the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January, was meant to “put a light on his athleticism, more or less,” Millard said.
“We worked on his long arm, which is basically a power move, to get [the tackle] to back up, and then we worked on straight speed rush. He’s a tall guy, so we had to work on the angle to get around the corner in a low position while at full speed. We did a lot of drills that pertain to that, and then we really worked on that inside punch.”
It’s a move Patterson has emphasized with rushers like Danielle Hunter, and as he starts his time in Minnesota, Aruna will try to become the next defensive end to follow in Hunter’s footsteps.
Count Millard among those who believe he can make it happen.
“Andre Patterson, to me, is one of the best, if not the best, defensive line coaches in the NFL,” Millard said. “If anybody can get this kid taught properly, Andre can do it. ... The canvas is there — you’ve just got to develop it. If I know Ade, he’ll do whatever it takes.”
Aruna’s parents are still in Nigeria; he saw them at graduation last year, for the first time in about seven years.
“They’ve never seen me play football,” he said. “Hopefully I have the opportunity to play at the next level. One day very soon, I will bring them back and they can watch how football is played.”