Catawba Football: Samolu coming into his own
By Mike London
Saturday’s game at Newberry was like old times for Catawba linebacker Julian Samolu.
Shortly after stuffing two running plays, the 215-pound junior roared across the field to chase down a Newberry pass completion. Once he arrived, he created sufficient impact to force a fumble that set up a Catawba touchdown.
“Great backside pursuit,” linebackers coach Todd McComb said. “Julian was able to run that play down and make an aggressive hit, and Lakeem Perry picked up the ball.”
It was the sort of big play Catawba coaches have been waiting patiently for Samolu to make and the sort of play Samolu has been waiting impatiently to make.
Samolu, the son of Liberian immigrants, was a fantastic player at West Rowan and a dominant linebacker on the Falcons’ powerful 2005 team that matched a county record by winning its first 13 games.
“Coach (Scott) Young and Coach (Joe) Nixon raved about him,” Catawba head coach Chip Hester said. “We went to watch him, saw all this potential, and said, ‘Man, he’s got a chance to be a star.’ ”
Samolu made 128 tackles his senior year and earned co-player of the year honors for Rowan County. He appeared destined for a higher level than Division II, probably Appalachian State or Richmond, but there were knee issues and size issues, and Catawba landed the local product.
“I had to get my knee scoped and things happened that kept me close to home for college, but I always felt Coach Hester and Mrs. (Trish) Hester were behind me,” Samolu said. “It’s not a bad thing to stay near home. Every Saturday I get a lot of support. My coaches at West check up on me a lot.”
Samolu didn’t redshirt. He got into 10 games as a freshman, contributed on special teams and made an impact against Wingate with a forced fumble and a recovery.
He figured to challenge for a starting role as a sophomore, but a stress fracture in a foot put him behind. He sat out the early games, finally played in eight and got in on 15 tackles.
“It wasn’t until we started moving toward the playoffs last year that the team needed me to play a major part,” Samolu said.
The first two college seasons were humbling for Samolu, who had the reputation as a fun-loving chatterbox in high school.
In workouts prior to the current season, he adopted an approach that was both more physical and more cerebral, and it’s helped him make strides at a level where things move more quickly than in high school.
Samolu got in excellent shape for this season and has added 20 pounds of muscle since his high school days. He’s also become a more conscientious student of film. Superior preparation has enabled him to react more quickly to situations on gamedays.
“Julian’s extra time spent in the film room and his asking more questions are signs of a player who is maturing on the field and off,” McComb said.
“He’s more aggressive and more confident this year. Playing linebacker isn’t just getting to the ball when it comes your way. It’s getting to the ball even when it’s away from you, and he showed at Newberry he’s capable of making those plays.”
Catawba lost 33-14 at Newberry, but Samolu had a breakout performance and shared team’s defensive player of the week honors with Perry, an impressive freshman. Samolu was credited with 10 tackles.
“We might look back one day and see Saturday night as a turning point for Julian toward being that All-SAC player we think he can be,” Hester said. “He did the things that showed why we recruited him and why we’ve always had faith in him.”
Samolu gives most of the credit for his development to McComb, who earned first-team All-America honors at Catawba in 2001-02.
“It really helps to have someone like Coach McComb,” Samolu said. “He played not that long ago, and he knows what to do and how to do it.”
Not that Samolu has been perfect, and not that he can’t get better. But he’s established himself as a starter, even with veteran linebackers Charlie Walker, E.J. Branch and Leon Ager available. Samolu ranks third on the team in tackles with 23.
“The first couple of years we saw flashes from Julian, and then he brought it all together Saturday and had a great game,” Hester said.
“But what we preach is consistency, and we want to see that sort of effort from him every week. He’s come to that place now where it’s clicking for him. He’s reacting instead of thinking, and that gives him a chance to reach his potential.”
Catawba will need a huge effort from Samolu and everyone on the defensive unit Saturday. Carson-Newman averages 46.2 points and nearly 500 yards per game.