Arnold Ebiketie's journey goes from Cameroon to Temple to Penn State. NFL likely next stop

JOE JULIANO
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Penn State defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (17) celebrates after forcing Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara (12) to fumble during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa.on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

The keys to success for Arnold Ebiketie in recent years, from knowing little about football when he tried out for his high school team as a sophomore, to being a near-certain first-team All-Big Ten defensive end as a fifth-year Penn State senior, are his love for hard work and competing.

He comes by both qualities naturally. Growing up in Cameroon, he watched how hard his mother and father worked and the sacrifices they made to ensure that he and his three siblings had what they needed, and those examples "kept pushing me to always give 100%," he said.

The urge to compete first came playing soccer, a sport he learned from his father and called "my first love." After immigrating to the United States at age 13, settling in Rockville, Md., and adjusting to a new culture, Ebiketie took up basketball because "everybody in my neighborhood would go to the park and play."

The big question, however, came after the family moved to Silver Spring, Md. After enrolling at Albert Einstein High School, Ebiketie, then a tall, lanky teenager, was asked a question.

"The coach approached me and asked me if I wanted to play football," Ebiketie told The Inquirer last week. "At first I was hesitant about it and I talked to my Dad about it. He basically said, 'Why not? You might as well give it a try.' That's when I started playing football."

Growing into a star: That began his football career, one that continued at Temple where he grew — in size and ability — into an All-American Athletic Conference defensive end in his redshirt junior season. He continued his surge at Penn State, where as a 6-foot-3, 258-pound combination of strength, quickness, and explosiveness, he has turned heads of NFL scouts and found himself on many top-10 draft rankings of best defensive ends or edge rushers.

The progress of the onetime three-star recruit has been striking, from an underweight 200-pound edge rusher as a Temple freshman to what he's been able to achieve as a fifth-year senior with the Nittany Lions — seventh in FBS with 17 tackles for losses and 14th in sacks with 9 1/2 . Those numbers in the Big Ten rank second and third, respectively.

His value extends beyond stats: His value to the Penn State program, however, is more than just numbers. He came in before the start of the 2021 spring semester and bonded with his teammates during winter workouts, a connection that strengthened as it continued into spring football, summer workouts and the preseason. Players and coaches alike loved his work ethic and his personality.

"You get a chance to know the kid and be around him, and he's been awesome," head coach James Franklin said. "Obviously he's made a huge impact for us on the defensive side of the ball. He's always got a smile on his face. He's had a great experience here. He's very close with the guys. The staff loves him."

Defensive end Nick Tarburton called Ebiketie "a huge pickup for us."

"He fit in right away," the former Pennridge High School standout said. "Not only has he contributed on the field but he's also a great person, a funny guy, a great dude to hang around."

Suddenly a football star: Mike Bonavia, who was the head coach at Einstein High before moving to another school as assistant principal, met Ebiketie in the player's sophomore season. He then returned as Einstein's head coach the following season for a team that had been 1-19 the previous two years.

He said Ebiketie's athleticism and work ethic helped his development in football. During the player's junior year, "He started getting really excited about it, realized he had a wingspan, and then some success he was having on the field. I think it was between his junior and senior year when he made a tremendous difference," Bonavia said.

That was a bit of an understatement. Ebiketie recorded 25 1/2 sacks as a senior, one off the Maryland state record. Bonavia said he blamed himself for his player not reaching the mark "because we had some success versus other teams and I pulled him out."

But he knew the kid could be something special.

"I don't think he knew how serious he was about becoming a bona fide football player until his senior year," he said. "He always worked hard. He wanted to be better than anybody else. He wanted to be the best he could be, but I don't know if he knew that the time he was putting in was going to be a passion of three or four years down the road in a weightlifting program or an offseason program."

Ebiketie called Bonavia "a great coach and an even better person," and said he learned from him about "going beyond what's required of an athlete to be successful."

"He just taught us as a whole what it took to win games," he said. "As a program, we never really understood what it took to be at a high level. What it came down to was being invested a little bit more, doing more than just what is required, putting in extra time in the playbook, extra time to build chemistry with the team, coming in after hours and stuff."

Ebiketie received college interest as a junior and committed to Towson, an FCS school near Baltimore. However, the numbers he put up as a senior made him more attractive to recruiters, and he flipped his commitment to Temple where he redshirted his first season in 2017. He did not record any stats the following year but began to see more playing time in 2019 when he was part of the rotation at defensive end.

"When I got to Temple, I believe I was around 200 pounds, so early on the main thing for me was to learn and kind of gain weight," he said. "That was the main focus for me early on. I played behind some really good players and just being able to soak up the knowledge and just learn behind those guys. Also I knew that at some point in time it was going to be my time, I was going to get my opportunity to perform."

The next step: One player he learned from and was motivated by was Quincy Roche, the 2019 AAC defensive player of the year for Temple who transferred to Miami for his final season and now is a rookie linebacker for the New York Giants.

Ebiketie seized his opportunity in 2020. Weighing in at 240 pounds, he made his first career start in the season opener and went on to lead the Owls in tackles for losses, sacks, and forced fumbles. He ended the year earning second-team All-AAC honors.

Ebiketie said he enjoyed his experience at Temple, learned a lot and "made some bonds that will carry on for the rest of my life." But with at least one more year of eligibility remaining, he wondered about a next step, how to keep growing into the best player he could be.

"A part of me didn't want to come back and kind of get complacent because you have the accolades now," he said. "You want to be the best on the team and I was trying to find a way, how do I remain competitive? How do I find a new challenge for myself? I felt like in order for me to reach that goal, the best thing to do was to enter the transfer portal and go to a team that would give me the opportunity to compete at a high level week in and week out."

The Nittany Lions were losing two starting defensive ends who would become NFL draft picks — Odafe (Jayson) Oweh and former Imhotep Charter star Shaka Toney. Looking at defensive ends in the portal, Franklin noticed Ebiketie, whose high school coach, Bonavia, was a longtime acquaintance of him and Lions strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt III.

"You have people checking the portal and watching tape and seeing if he makes sense for us for what our needs are," Franklin said. "Then you obviously reach out and make contact. We typically try to call the previous school and find out what's going on there and get their opinion, and they just spoke so highly of him.

"Then me and Coach Galt have known his high school coach for 20 years, I guess, and he really felt good about his fit and coming to us and playing for us. We felt really good about the recommendation that he gave."

Ebiketie said there were "a couple of schools in the picture" but decided to go with Penn State. He liked the conversations he had with Franklin and defensive line coach John Scott Jr. He knew graduate assistant and former Nittany Lions defensive end Deion Barnes from working with him at Temple. He also reached out to Toney, who offered a strong endorsement.

"It was definitely the best fit for me," he said.

Ebiketie has provided a lift all season for the Lions' defense, which ranks first in the Big Ten in points allowed (15.5 per game) and red zone touchdown percentage (29.7%), and is tied for first with 16 TDs given up. He has at least one tackle for loss in seven straight games.

"His motor never stops," Bonavia said. "Now that he's with the greats, it's channeled into excellence with what he's doing with his work ethic and his responsibilities on the field, where he's supposed to go. I think his first step off the ball is a tough task for an offensive tackle, especially if he gets around you. You're not going to catch him."

Ebiketie has Saturday's game at Michigan State and a bowl matchup ahead of him. The NFL beckons, but he will take his time on his future knowing that he does have one more season, the extra year allowed by the NCAA after the pandemic-plagued 2020.

"The main thing for me, it's taking it one day at a time," he said, "just not overlook anything, take care of the rest of the regular season, and then afterwards sit with my family, with my coaches, and try to figure out what's the best decision for me moving forward."