HARRISONBURG — College football’s version of purgatory makes its players doubt themselves — especially if the stay lasts too long.
“That moment for me was the day I found out I was on scout team again,” James Madison fourth-year junior linebacker Kelvin Azanama said. “I actually almost quit football after that day.”
Spots on the scout team are reserved for those good enough to be on the roster, but not the two-deep. Think talented, but raw, freshmen or veterans that’ll do anything to help their teammates and coaches, but never contribute more than the occasional special teams rep on Saturdays.
The job is vital to prepare starters for the opponent they’ll face, but there is no glory in it and players on the scout team only work as hard as they can in order to be promoted off of it.
Azanama was assigned to the scout team for the third time in his career before the 2018 season, so he made it his mission not to be placed there ahead of this year and shed the scout-team label he was attached to.
For the first time in his career, Azanama appeared on the depth chart and earned his first-career start at linebacker in the Dukes’ season opener at West Virginia on Aug. 31. He has eight tackles through two games, which is eight times as many as the one tackle he registered all of last season. This is how he changed the course of his career.
‘Willing To Do Whatever’
Azanama said he didn’t know first-year James Madison linebackers coach Bryant Haines well when the two met in early January.
But that wasn’t going to scare off Azanama — who Haines wouldn’t find on film or on a stat sheet from the previous season — as Haines settled into his new role after following Dukes coach Curt Cignetti from Elon to JMU.
“I went to go talk with [Haines] and I said, ‘I’m willing to do whatever to get on the field,’” Azanama said. “I literally said that and it was my second ever time talking to him, but I had to say it because it was a shocker for me not to be able to contribute to the team last year. It was a big shocker for me and a very humbling moment.”
According to Azanama, Haines told the linebacker to learn the defense and understand what the coaches would ask of him.
A request to speak with Haines was denied since Cignetti doesn’t allow his assistant coaches to talk with the media during the season.
“The number one thing is I had to learn the playbook,” Azanama said. “I had to learn this new defense and watching film was the first thing I chose to do. Then learning the defense gave me more confidence in going out there and doing my job to the best of my abilities, so watching film and getting confidence was number one.”
Through the spring and into August training camp, the confidence and knowledge Azanama gained caught the attention of Haines and Cignetti. But it was magnified when All-Colonial Athletic Association linebacker Dimitri Holloway broke his hand a few days into practice last month and Azanama took the snaps in his place.
“He had a really good fall camp,” Cignetti said. “He flies around and he’s really committed and into it. He studies the game. And he started the [West Virginia] game at WILL linebacker and then Dimitri came in, and then Kelvin also spelled Landan Word at MIKE, so he’s playing MIKE and WILL, which isn’t easy to do.
“Where it becomes tricky is that the fits in the run game are different. The responsibilities are different. They’re two completely different positions, but then when you call a blitz and the team motions across the field, all of a sudden you may have two completely different guys blitzing. There’s a lot going on, so now to know all your assignments and proper fits in the run game, it’s a quite a task and he’s the only one we ask to do that.”
‘I Knew He Could Thrive’
Cignetti and Haines aren’t the first believers in Azanama, who was recruited to JMU by former linebackers coach Byron Thweatt.
Upon arriving in Harrisonburg as part of former coach Mike Houston’s initial JMU staff, Thweatt offered Azanama a preferred walk-on opportunity with the Dukes after previously recruiting Azanama to Division II Virginia State where Thweatt was the head coach in 2015.
“He was a tremendous kid that had a lot of energy on the field,” said Thweatt, now reunited with Houston at East Carolina after a season at Marshall. “On his film, that popped out immediately and he was a kid that I felt in the system we were running that he could, of course, be a player. I definitely thought he’d be a great Division II player, but that also with some development he could play at the FCS level.”
Like Thweatt, Azanama played his high school football in the Richmond area. Thweatt at Matoaca High School before a standout college career at Virginia, and Azanama at Monacan High School where he began to think he could play in college.
“The day I fell in love with football was 10th grade when I had my first big hit,” Azanama said. “Against Godwin High School. It was a JV game and I moved up to varsity after that.”
His sophomore high school season marked the just the third year he played football. Azanama, a Nigerian immigrant, said he grew up playing soccer and basketball and that continued even following his family's move to the United States when he was 10.
“I remember in eighth grade, one of my coaches looked at my neck and said, ‘You should play football,’” Azanama recalled. “And that’s how it went.”
Azanama admitted he was still trying to figure out football at the prep level, but once he got to JMU and spent time with Thweatt, his then-linebackers coach was able to speed up his learning curve of the game.
“I’m really proud of him,” Thweatt said, “because I always told Kelvin, ‘The more you know and the more you can do, the more value you add for yourself.’ And I tried to double-cross train him at different positions and he was attentive. He was a smart kid. He was very smart and he picks things up fast, and I always said, ‘Kelvin, the more you learn, the better we’ll be because you’ll fit a lot of different needs.’”
Thweatt said he was tough on Azanama at times, but always appreciated that the 5-foot-11, 213-pound defender could handle it.
“What’s really funny is [former JMU linebacker] Kyre Hawkins is down here with us as a [graduate assistant],” Thweatt said. “And we joke a lot about how hard I was on Kelvin. I’d bust Kelvin out every single day, but it never bothered him. It seemed like he liked it and that he thrived from it. If I’d be hard on him one day, the next day he was in my office asking questions about how he could get better. And that’s the thing. I’m really proud of him and I’m glad he’s doing really good, because I always saw that bright spot in him.”
And Azanama said when he started studying the system first-year JMU defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman would install in the spring and fall, Azanama realized the defense wasn’t that much different from the one he played in under Houston, Thweatt and former Dukes defensive coordinator Bob Trott.
“It’s not like I didn’t know [the previous defense], but I just didn’t have confidence in myself,” Azanama said. “I feel like confidence for a defensive player is very key.”
He said his newfound belief in himself helped earn those meaningful reps at linebacker for the first time.
“I feel like walking out at West Virginia was one of the biggest moments of my life when it comes to football,” Azanama said. “It was something I’ve wanted for a while. I’ve wanted to play linebacker, to play defense in significant minutes ever since after my redshirt freshman year, to be honest, because I felt like I’ve been working hard toward this. I walked the field before the game and one thing I did was thank God because it’s not like I was here, but I was.”
Thweatt said: “I knew he could thrive.”