Inside an Airbnb along the waters of Miami Beach, Josh Uche is getting his hair trimmed by barber Steven Rivera.
Rivera — who has cut the hair of several professional athletes, including Miami Heat rookie Tyler Herro and Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — cleans up Uche’s fade and grooms his beard. Videographer Theo Smith stays close, capturing it all.
It’s a big day for Uche, a 21-year-old linebacker out of Michigan. He is hopeful that commissioner Roger Goodell will call his name that evening in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
A freshened-up Uche puts on a black T-shirt and gray plaid pants before completing his look with a Cuban link chain and a pair of Christian Louboutin-studded sneakers. He’s ready for his moment.
Uche’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has given him a list of teams with percentages corresponding to their interest levels. Among those on his radar are the Patriots with the 23rd overall pick and the Seattle Seahawks at 27th overall.
But the call never comes. The Patriots trade out of the first round, and the Seahawks opt for another linebacker, Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks.
“Tomorrow is our day,” Smith tells Uche. “Day 2. No matter what.”
Less than 24 hours later, the process resumes.
A small group of Uche’s close friends hangs out in the kitchen, where there’s free beer and pizza thanks to sponsorships from Bud Light and Pizza Hut. Smith documents Uche, sporting a pair of Bose headphones, as he sits on the couch and waits. Uche stays locked in on the TV. The room stays quiet.
With the end of the second round nearing, the phone finally rings.
“At first, his agent said it was the Titans,” said Jordan Hernandez, one of Uche’s friends in attendance. “We all thought it was the Titans. Everybody was screaming, so he didn’t even know it was the Patriots.”
New England swooped in, trading with the Baltimore Ravens to move up and nab Uche with the 60th pick, one selection ahead of Tennessee. Goodell officially delivers the news.
Uche’s eyes well with tears.
Soon he is on the phone with coach Bill Belichick, then owner Robert Kraft. He also FaceTimes Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, one of the other NFL players with whom Smith works closely.
The group pops champagne on the balcony, where Uche’s parents give short toasts. There are hugs all around.
“It was just surreal,” Hernandez said. “All the work he’s put in has paid off.”
Hernandez and another one of Uche’s friends remain long after everybody else has left. The trio listen to music, hop in the jacuzzi, and stay up through the early-morning hours. Well past midnight, they rewatch the first three rounds of the draft.
“Josh was just like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. This is for real,’ ” said Hernandez.
Talented but raw
Prior to preparing for the Thursday draft festivities, Uche had returned that morning to his old stomping grounds at Christopher Columbus High, an all-boys private Catholic school just outside Miami.
He didn’t want to skip his workout.
“He was in the gym,” said Oscar Benitez, one of Uche’s former teachers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing? Today’s the day to eat pancakes and relax.’ He’s like, ‘I didn’t get here by relaxing.’ ''
When an undeveloped, 5-foot-11-inch, 15-year-old Uche first arrived at Christopher Columbus, he was pushing 205 pounds and was “all elbows and knees,” according to football coach Chris Merritt.
“He was long and he was kind of skinny,” said Merritt, who now coaches at Bryant University. “He really wasn’t that coordinated yet.”
Uche had transferred to Columbus the second semester of his sophomore year. He previously attended a nearby public high school, where his playing time was sparse through two seasons. At Columbus, the coaches originally slotted him at linebacker before moving him to defensive end.
“Josh is in this tackling drill and he is awkward,” recalled defensive coordinator Alex Trujillo. “It’s almost like — have you ever seen those giraffes when they’re born and they don’t have their legs underneath them?”
After a few spring practices, defensive line coach Pedro Marti identified Uche’s raw speed and explosiveness as “something special.” His burst was elite. But Uche needed to learn just about everything else: how to transition his speed into power, how to use his hands, how to squeeze gaps in the run game, how to incorporate counters, how to read offensive linemen.
Marti and Uche logged countless hours together, most of which came at the request of a persistent Uche. The pair would spend an extra 20 minutes on the field following practice one day and schedule an individual film session the next. By the time the season rolled around that fall, Uche had certainly made progress — but not enough.
A few games into his junior year, Uche had seen the field only on passing downs, mainly third-and-long. He wanted more.
“That was frustrating for him,” Marti said. “We had a discussion. I told him, ‘Look, I’m not going to put you in there on every down unless I feel that you’re going to give us the best opportunity to win.’
“To his credit, through his play and through his progression of improving, I had no choice but to make him an every-down player.”
Uche’s role evolved beyond a pass-rush specialist, as he continued to elevate his play. He finished his senior season with 50 tackles, 14 sacks, three pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. His ability to bend around a corner at high speeds remains unmatched, according to his former coaches.
“If I’m fielding a track team and I need a guy that’s going to run the curve, Josh is the guy I want running the curve,” Merritt said.
Before Don Brown became Michigan’s defensive coordinator, he held the same position at Boston College. That’s where he first began recruiting Uche.
After Brown left for Michigan in December 2015, the pursuit didn’t stop.
“When I came to Michigan, Josh came with me,” Brown said.
Uche initially intended on staying close to home by attending Miami, but he de-committed following a coaching change, and ultimately chose Michigan over Alabama and Auburn. Once settled in at Ann Arbor, Uche found himself in a familiar situation: He wasn’t getting much playing time.
A torn meniscus sidelined him for all but four games his freshman year. A stress fracture in his foot limited him during fall camp as a sophomore. The injuries weren’t major, Brown says, but they were enough to impede his development. Over 14 games his first two seasons, Uche registered a total of six tackles as a situational pass rusher.
Both Merritt and Marti remember getting phone calls from a frustrated Uche, who lamented his diminished role. Transferring was on the table.
“He wasn’t patient,” Merritt said. “He’s not patient. He said they would only use him in pass-rush situations early on. That’s not what he wanted to be. He wanted to be on the field on first and second down, too.”
To be an every-down player, Uche had to learn the nuances at linebacker, a position that was still relatively new to him. Merritt and Marti reminded Uche that his work ethic had pushed him through a similar experience at Columbus.
So how did he respond at Michigan? By busting his butt.
Brown called Uche a “student of the game,” someone who was constantly in the office asking to review tape. Uche would also send clips to Marti, asking for feedback. When he returned home to Miami during school breaks, the pair would meet up to watch film.
On the field, Brown couldn’t keep Uche out of the one-on-one pass-rush pit during practice.
“You had to throw him out of the drills,” Brown recalled. “It’s not his turn, but he was jumping in there, like, ‘Coach, I need this work.’ He would just keep jumping in the drills. You’d be like, ‘Josh, you gotta get out of there. The other guys got to work, too, you know.’
"He worked on his craft of being a pass rusher like no other human being I’ve ever seen.”
With help from the strength and conditioning staff, Uche gained about 20 pounds during his first two seasons. Brown watched his understanding of schemes grow, along with his confidence and comfort level.
Everything came together for a breakout junior year, when he appeared in 12 games and led the team in sacks. Brown said he began integrating Uche into essentially all of the team’s packages after a stellar performance against Northwestern that season.
“I don’t think Josh has ever been a star,” said Trujillo. “I think everything he’s ever done, he’s had to work for it.”
As a senior, Uche put on another 10 pounds and once again was Michigan’s sack leader with 8½. He started nine games and was named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year. According to Brown, Uche led the country with a pressure rating of 26 percent.
Uche’s increased production came with opportunities to showcase his versatility. Some snaps, he’d be an outside linebacker; some snaps, he’d be a defensive end.
“He might have played seven different positions in one game,” Brown said. “We played him all over."
NFL trainer Chad Wilson first heard from Uche last summer.
Uche wanted to train like a defensive back, Wilson’s primary clientele. He reached out again this past March and was able to land a spot in the small group workouts with help from his high school teammate CJ Henderson, who had been training with Wilson and was drafted ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Josh came and, lo and behold, he was out there moving around almost like a big safety,” Wilson said. “I was very surprised at his movement skills. I was very intrigued.”
The only non-defensive back participating in the sessions, Uche went through Wilson’s footwork and conditioning drills just like the rest of the group. The goal? Learn to cover like a safety while being able to hit like a linebacker. Learn to be a defensive end who can also drop into pass coverage.
Wilson remembers overhearing the other athletes speculate about Uche.
“They were all like, ‘Hey, what position does he play?’ This dude is pretty big. Is he a safety?’ ” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘No, don’t worry, safeties aren’t that big yet. He’s a defensive end/linebacker.’ And they’re like, ‘Damn.’ ”
Wilson worked with Uche on harnessing his athleticism and mastering efficient movements, including how to open his hips and run, how to flip his hips, and how to get out of a break.
Because Uche suffered a hamstring strain in the Senior Bowl, he was only able to complete the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine. With Michigan’s Pro Day canceled because of the coronavirus, Uche enlisted Wilson to create a workout video that he could send to all 32 NFL teams.
“We got some pretty positive feedback,” Wilson said.
The work with Wilson is one of the reasons Brown says Uche’s best football is still ahead of him. His transition from a 3-point-stance player to a 2-point-stance player is ongoing. Brown envisions Uche filling a similar position as Kyle Van Noy, who left the Patriots for the Miami Dolphins during free agency this offseason.
“I think he’s going to thrive in [New England’s] system,” Brown said. “He takes the coaching, and he likes to be coached.”
As for what Uche thinks about the fit?
“I would say it’s a good fit for me," he said, “because I’m a hard-ass worker and the Patriots work their asses off.”