Born in Ireland and raised in London, Darren Agu got his first glimpse of American football at age 12, and it was infatuation at first sight.
It would be four more years until he found an avenue to actually try the contact version of the sport, albeit a pared-down, nine-on-nine format. He loved it anyway, so much so, in fact, that he was willing to take a leap of faith across the Atlantic in the middle of a pandemic to a tiny town in a northern Georgia mountain pass to see what it could all turn into.
College coaches who bothered to glance at the highlight tape that Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School head coach Joe Sturdivant mailed out en masse of his 6-foot-6, 235-pound defensive end prospect’s only season of 11-on-11 competition also became fixated on how Agu’s passion might translate on the college level.
Last week Alabama and Notre Dame joined a burgeoning offer list that has swelled past 30 schools, including Auburn, Florida State, Miami, Penn State and Tennessee.
And on Friday Agu announced that the next chapter of his journey would unfold at Notre Dame, a school he hadn’t even heard of before enrolling at his international boarding and day school in August.
“When I did my research, I found out how consistent Notre Dame was at being good at football and good it was academically and how much a degree from Notre Dame means,” Agu said in a phone interview. “That pretty much helped me make my decision.”
He becomes the 12th member of the 2022 Irish class and the third defensive end, joining Tyson Ford of St. Louis and Aiden Gobaira of Chantilly, Va. Agu said he plans to get his first look at the campus in person on an official visit either the first or second weekend in June.
That’s provided the NCAA, as expected, ends the elongated dead period that’s been in place since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of in-person recruiting 13 months ago.
“With Darren, there was a lot of teaching that had to happen,” said Sturdivant, who lined up Agu as both a defensive end and tight end. “But Darren listened and learned, and he’s a student of the game.
“He really, really loves football. And that made it easy to teach him and grow him. Of course, he's an extremely confident athlete. And he had all the athletic ability in the world. It’s just teaching him the game of football and the discipline required to be great at it.”
Agu’s three-star ranking on both Rivals and 247Sports already feels outdated. He has been timed at 4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is running track this spring at Rabun-Gap Nacoochee. His events: the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes and the 4-by-100 and 4-by-200 relays.
“He looks good — muscular, athletic,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “He needs coaching, but I think (ND defensive line coach) Mike Elston could do a good job with him. He’s got five-star potential.
“I think it’s a great acquisition for Notre Dame. Everyone who saw him — the way he ran and moved — offered him, including Alabama. It’s a massive catch for Notre Dame. He’s not a five-star now, because he hasn’t played enough. But this could be a big superstar for Notre Dame.
“This could be the start of something big.”
Even before Agu committed, Notre Dame’s 2022 class was ranked fourth nationally by both Rivals and 247Sports, behind only Ohio State, Georgia and LSU. A growing list of elite prospects planning to take official visits to ND in June could add to the Irish momentum.
“There are a lot of really good players interested in Notre Dame,” Lemming said. “They’re going to run out of scholarships before they run out of great players. That’s how good they’re doing.”
Agu’s path was certainly the most unlikely of them — not because of his talent, but because of circumstances.
He was training last spring in North London at the NFL Academy, an initiative in the United Kingdom by the NFL for kids 16-19 to go to school and train intensively in the sport under the tutelage of full-time professional coaches.
The aim is to create opportunities for those student-athletes to play college football in the United States. But COVID shut down the academy in the spring. And the coaches suggested to Agu that he send a highlight reel to prep schools and high schools in the United States.
Sturdivant, meanwhile, was coaching the Marburg Mercenaries in the German Football League. The former Georgia high school standout and safety for SMU had coaching experience in the U.S., but even more in Europe after his pro playing career started and ended there.
“What brought me back to the U.S. — again — last spring, is that my wife tells me she’s pregnant and does not want to have a kid in Europe away from family and wants to move home.
“I’m like, 'What do I do?' And sure enough the very next day Rabun Gap reached out to me. I had driven by this place about eight years ago and pulled into the parking lot when they just started football. And I was like, 'Hey, do you guys need a football coach?'
“They didn’t at the time, but I stayed friends with the current athletic director and the old head coach. They thought about me at some point. They were both together on a vacation. I got an email, and they said, ‘Are you interested in coming here?’
“I’m like, ‘Well, actually. Yeah.’ ”
Another European for Notre Dame at DE!!! Darren Agu is a kid I had at 3 camps in England and he’s going to be a stud! He played last year at Rabun Gap and developed great!— Brandon Collier (@BCollierPPI) April 9, 2021
When coach asked me what I think about him I said “no brainer”
International talent is taking off!!!!
Sturdivant used his European connections and knowledge of the continent’s elite youth players to help build his 2020 roster. On a team that played for the state championship, only four Americans started, and U.S. players made up only 30 percent of the roster.
The state in which Rabun Gap-Nacoochee competed, though, is North Carolina. Because Georgia’s transfer rules would have required international players to sit out a season, the school has been playing in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association.
“I can throw a rock at North Carolina and hit it,” said Sturdivant of the town of 1,921 that snuggles the North Carolina border and also sits near the Georgia-South Carolina boundary.
“It was the complete opposite from where I’m from,” said Agu, who had never been to the U.S. before enrolling last summer. “There are a lot of cows and a lot of grass.
“I’m used to skyscrapers, buses and cars, so it was quite a different experience. But I got used to it and never regretted it for a second.”
Agu’s mother was initially reluctant for Agu to head off to Georgia but eventually was convinced by his father to relent. COVID-19 protocols complicated travel for all the international players, who came from 25 different countries (in addition to 17 states).
When the team opened training camp on Aug. 3, there were just four players on site. Per Studivant, the roster wasn’t completed until the day before the team’s Sept. 25 opener with 2019 NCISAA state runner-up, the Christ School from Asheville, N.C.
“You get kids with all different skill levels, understanding of the game,” Sturdivant said of the international players. “We’ve had to reprogram and teach football the right way. Basically it’s like a brand new football program when you inject kids from all over the world.
“We all showed up in August in the middle of COVID-19. There was a lot of teaching that had to happen.”
The fact that there may be as many as eight other Division I prospects signing national letters-of-intent in December, and that the Eagles came within six points of four-time state champ Charlotte (N.C.) Christian in the title game on Nov. 20 suggest how much learning was accomplished.
“We’re excited for our future as a program and for the kids’ futures,” Sturdivant said. “I think if there wasn’t COVID this season, they’d have even more offers, because coaches would have been able to come and watch practice in person.
“And when you see Darren Agu in person, he’s even more impressive than his tape. I’m still convinced he’s closer to 6-8 than 6-6. And then you watch him run and move and the passion he puts into practicing.
“I think it’s cool the Fighting Irish are getting an Irishman. But more importantly, they’re getting a great kid with an incredible future. I’m not sure his parents understand yet how special this opportunity is for him yet. But they, and everybody else, are about to find out.”