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Onatolu takes unorthodox route to NFL

Posted Jun 21, 2012

CHARLOTTE - At first glance, most people think linebacker Kenny Onatolu played for one of college football's most tradition-steeped programs.

Upon closer inspection, however, Onatolu actually played at a place more known for college baseball and steaks than for high-stakes college football.

"Every single time, people say, 'Oh, you played at Nebraska?' And I have to explain, 'No, at Nebraska-Omaha,'" Onatolu said. "We were Division II. No one knows about us."

Such has been Onatolu's football life - often overlooked, rarely appreciated.

The Carolina Panthers, however, saw beyond the paper trail, signing the former small-college and Canadian Football League player in the offseason.

"Kenny is a very good, physical special teamer who will be given the opportunity to compete for a role at linebacker," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said after the team signed Onatolu in March.

Onatolu quietly carved out a niche in the NFL before joining the Panthers. After two seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL, the Minnesota Vikings gave him an opportunity to come south of the border.

He responded with 49 special teams tackles over the past three seasons, including 34 in two seasons under Vikings special teams coach Brian Murphy before Murphy took the same role with the Panthers in 2011.

"He coached me in Minnesota, where I did real well on special teams, and he had a part in bringing me here," Onatolua said. "For a guy like me who played at a small school, went undrafted and played in Canada, special teams is everything.

"If you're not a starter, you've got to be dominant on special teams. That's what has kept me around."

Growing up 50 miles northeast of the Cornhuskers' campus in Lincoln, Onatolu dreamed of playing big-time college athletics. But when Division I programs could only offer him a chance to walk on and the possibly of a scholarship in the future, Onatolu stayed close to home for a full scholarship to Division II Nebraska-Omaha.

The decision still didn't shake the size of his dreams. 

"I always had the NFL in the back of my mind, but I never let it be known because you don't want to be that guy," Onatolu said. "There had been a few guys from U.N.O. to play in the NFL, so I know there was a possibility if I really excelled every year I was there. I knew it would take a little bit of luck, too."

Some NFL teams did take note of his four standouts seasons at Nebraska-Omaha, but he wasn't drafted and didn't get an invite to training camp, hearing on more than one occasion that his lack of quality competition turned teams off.

The CFL gave him a chance, however, and the bigger stage gave him yet another shot at proving his worth, this time in an offense-oriented league.

"It's a high-scoring game," Onatolu said. "The field is huge. It's two downs and you're punting on third. It's a passing league. The receivers get running starts like the Arena Football League.

"I got real good at covering there, because a linebacker is almost like a linebacker/safety in the Canadian league. It showed off my sideline-to-sideline speed with the field being so big, and on special teams I dominated."

In 2009, Onatolu sparkled on special teams as an NFL rookie at the age of 27. He tied for the team lead with 24 special teams tackles and recovered a Reggie Bush fumble on a punt in the NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints.

His chances at linebacker were limited - one start in three seasons - just like they may well be with the Panthers. But for a team that struggled at times on special teams last year and had to start eight different linebackers because of injuries, Onatolu may just fit the bill.

"There are definitely some very good linebackers here, so I'm going to try to provide depth if my name is called and obviously do my thing on special teams," he said. "I love it here. All the linebackers here are all high-character. It's a really easy situation to walk into."


This is the latest in a series of articles profiling offseason veteran free agent acquisitions, including running back Mike Tolbert, safety Haruki Nakamura, guard Mike Pollak and safety Reggie Smith. Look for more to come on Panthers.com.