LINCOLN — Joshua Kalu flashes his thousand-watt smile and barely slows his pace. He’s given this answer before.
No, he’s not doing interviews. Lots going on right now, he says. Wearing an apologetic look, the defensive back pauses for a moment before disappearing into a stairwell at the Hawks Center after one of 15 spring practices.
For all Kalu has done on the field — appearing in 39 games and starting every contest the last two seasons — the Nebraska senior-to-be prefers to keep a low public profile off it. One talk with reporters after the Music City Bowl was all he has done since fall camp.
“That’s just him,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “He also don’t sign nothing. But he’ll take a picture. But that’s just him, man. That’s who he is. I just smile about it. That’s what he do.”
With Kalu getting a look at field safety this spring, Jackson moved into his old spot as the No. 1 boundary corner. The sophomore watches his role model and friend adjust to a new position with nary a scowl or complaint. It’s the kind of reaction he has come to expect from the man he calls “The Big Homey,” though Kalu has said before that corner might be his best shot at fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL.
It’s one of the many tensions Kalu carries as his final college season approaches. A corner trying a safety’s role. Intelligent and outspoken among teammates, but staying away from interviews. A conservatively raised Christian with a personality the size of Memorial Stadium.
So who is No. 10 in the white practice jersey? New safeties coach Bob Elliott is among those still learning.
“He doesn’t like to be called Josh, apparently, so it’s Joshua,” Elliott said. “He really wants to be called Kalu. I’ll call him whatever he wants to be called.”
On a mission
Prisca Kalu talks with her son almost every night. And her questions are always the same.
Joshua Kalu is the youngest of Elekwachi and Prisca’s four children, whom they raised in the Houston area after coming to the U.S. from Nigeria in the 1970s. All are well-educated and athletic. All spent time in faith-based schools and were strictly raised to value obedience, kindness toward others and — most important — an “admiration for God.”
Joshua’s mother sometimes has reminders for her 6-foot-1, 195-pound child. Prayer can’t make you go to class, so you better study, she says as he laughs. But she prefers to make inquiries. What has he accomplished today, and how does it relate to his big-picture goals? Has he respected his roommates and coaches? Does he remember why he’s in Nebraska?
“Of course, Momma,” he often replies.
“He has a mission he knows he has to accomplish,” Prisca said. “Football has been in his mind, and that’s why he came. He has been giving a lot of effort.”
The disinterest in media sessions, she says, comes from a desire to align his words and actions. Why say something publicly he might regret when his only accountability is to teammates and coaches?
NU safety JoJo Domann got a firsthand taste of Kalu’s commitment when they were “battle buddies” during winter conditioning. If one made a mistake (neither did), then both would face the consequences. They often reminded each other about 5 a.m. weightlifting workouts and wearing the right apparel to various functions.
The sophomore works behind Kalu at the field-safety spot and sees the same traits that make him a good corner. Effectively reading the quarterback. Communicating calls to the rest of the defense. Sticking to receivers, especially those in the slot.
“He’s definitely a leader,” Domann says. “He’s great. I know he’s very smart. He’s in five classes right now and has A’s in all of them. He’s a great teammate and a fun guy to be around.”
He's got jokes
“Be brave enough to live life creatively!”
Kalu tweeted out the line — his Twitter handle, @BluesKalus, is a joking reference to the “Blue’s Clues” children’s television show — March 6. It’s a mantra he follows when he wears native Nigerian robes during Friday walk-throughs and busts out dance moves in the locker room.
His effusive nature sometimes drew the ire of Nebraska coaches early in his career. He would be joking during games or celebrating at length before the end of a defensive series instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Former defensive coordinator Mark Banker points to the 2015 Wisconsin game as the moment when Kalu “came of age.” He made nine tackles in the Huskers’ 23-21 loss and had the look of someone who understood that others were counting on him.
Both player and coach showed all their cards the night before. Banker had called out Kalu during a meeting of the defense about not wearing proper team attire to the hotel. Worried that his coordinator might be upset with him, Kalu later approached Banker and the two spent nearly an hour “just kind of talking about life and the universe.”
“I think I used the term ‘court jester,’ ” Banker said. “I said to him, ‘Either you can be the court jester or you could be a potentially really good NFL football player. And in the meantime you could be a really good football player here at Nebraska.’ I thought he needed to fix his spots and know where to lock it down and where to let it loose. I don’t think that’s uncommon with a lot of young men who are finding their way through life and athletics.”
Kalu finished his academic All-Big Ten year with a flourish, returning an interception 41 yards for a touchdown the next week against Minnesota and recording 75 tackles and three picks overall. His junior line was almost as good as he collected 66 tackles — second among NU returners now — and a team-best 11 pass breakups. His interception at Northwestern clinched a victory late, and he also blocked an extra point at Iowa.
Banker says “Lulu” was always someone who only needs to see a scheme once or twice to understand it and picks up on opponents’ habits. This spring, Elliott has seen a defender “swimming a little bit mentally” as he accepts guidance from coaches as well as boundary safety Aaron Williams.
“He’s really learning quickly, I’ll give him that, but it’s a hard move to do completely and do it perfectly right off the bat,” Elliott says. “I think he knows it’s the best thing for the team, he wants to help the team and we really credit him for that.”
Humble over hype
Another balance Kalu keeps is one as the aspiring pro football player who cares about others.
His social media posts confirm as much. One tweet tells of his hopes for the 2018 NFL combine — 4.55 seconds or better in the 40-yard dash, 15 reps or more benching 225 pounds and at least a 38-inch vertical leap — with emojis of praying hands. Another is the hashtag “HumbleOverHype.” A third mentions, with some lightheartedness, a parking ticket he received from the university during its most recent winter break.
Prisca says her son cooks for others. He enjoys helping people even if they don’t ask.
“Sometimes he will bring breakfast to me in bed, trying to pamper me because I spoiled him, too,” the elder Kalu says. “When we’re driving, he likes to give money to homeless people. He has a compassionate heart and cares for others.”
Kalu has participated in community outreach with organizations like Make-A-Wish and NFL Fuel Up to Play 60 as well as local hospitals and rec centers. NU cornerbacks coach Donte Williams says Kalu’s ability to articulate calls on the field and interact with others off the field could one day make him a successful coach.
“Kalu’s personality is bigger than life,” Williams said. “I think a lot of people are going to be shocked by that when his time comes and he leaves from here. ... He’s probably, out of the whole secondary, the best personality there. So he’s going to talk and do all that stuff.”
So where does that leave Kalu in the short term? He’s already settled in enough at safety to continue breaking down huddles and stay vocal.
Jackson says Kalu’s outgoing demeanor makes it tough to tell whether he prefers the position change or would rather play corner. But, really, it’s a mystery that doesn’t need solving.
“I’m pretty sure he’s just kind of looking for the future, showing a little bit more versatility in his game and just trying to help the team win,” Jackson said. “He’s like a perfect fit — it’s not uncomfortable, he’s doing it greatly, making all the right calls, making all the right reads.”