In a surprising turn of events, red-shirted freshman Martin Ukpai played the quarterback position on Saturday in the Florida Classic.
The starting quarterback, senior Curtis Pulley, and back-up quarterback, red-shirted junior Eddie Battle, were injured in last week’s game at Hampton. Due to these injuries, Ukpai was forced to start his very first game at one of the largest HBCU football classics in the country, in front of a crowd of 59,614 people.
Despite the size and prestige of this game, Ukpai claimed he was not nervous but excited about starting, but made sure he worked hard to stay focused on the game.
“The main thing for me was not to freak out about the atmosphere, because it is the classic,” Ukpai said.
“I just relaxed [and] listened to my iPod to calm me down. I went through my playbook, looked at my plays to see what plays I could really take advantage of during this game. I just rested my body so I could be fully prepared for this game.”
With a total of 11 assists and 151 yards under his belt, Ukpai had a memorable starting performance. However, Ukpai credits his success to cohesiveness with the more established, experienced offensive line.
“[The offensive line] did a really good job of protecting me,” Ukpai said. “I had breakdowns with myself, just not trusting what I see and trying to take off with it instead of just staying in there. My offensive line stepped up really good and blocked for me the entire game…they did a heck of a job.”
Offensive lineman Robert Okeafor agreed, adding that it was the trusting relationship they’d built with Ukpai over the past week that helped them play more as a unit.
“We worked with him all week in practice, and just told him to trust his offensive line and we’d get him to the Promised Land,” Okeafor said.
Head Coach Joe Taylor compensated for Ukpai’s lack of experience by changing his practice techniques to accommodate the upcoming conditions in which Ukpai would be playing.
“Instead of going one on one versus offense and defense we kind of stayed separate this week; first of all for the defense so they could look at that unorthodox offense that Bethune runs, and then it was to get Ukpai some extra turns under center with our offense,” Taylor said.
According to Okeafor, it was these extra plays and drills that helped the offensive line adjust to a new quarterback in just a week’s time.
“I think the strategies that Coach had taught this week made it easier to block for whoever was back there,” Okeafor said. “He just happened to be the one managing the turns [and] the game. It was no easier [or] harder blocking him than Curtis; he did a really great job today.”
Despite Pulley’s not being able to play in Saturday’s game, Ukpai insists that he played a big role in helping him prepare.
“Pulley’s a super guy,” Ukpai said. “He told me just to stay calm, do my reads, look at receivers [and] match-ups, and just gave me tons of information. I appreciate what he did for me; without Pulley I probably wouldn’t have done what I did tonight.”
Offensive lineman, senior Anthony Collins, asserts that Ukpai plays like Pulley, and, with him following in the graduating senior’s footsteps, isn’t worried about the 28 seniors graduating from the team this year.
“They better look out next year, because they’ve got a good quarterback that’s coming back,” Collins said.