Chris Chukwuneke: Path To The NFL Draft

By Simon Carroll

Football is a brutal sport. And that obvious statement can also apply off the field too, as a lot of prospects eyeing a career in the NFL will attest to. For Chris Chukwuneke, his own draft preparations have been far from smooth – and yet, having had to fight tooth and nail to be in this position right now, it’s adversity he’s learned to relish. The James Madison defensive back sits down with Simon Carroll to talk about his path to the NFL Draft:

Football & Family

The youngest of five children, Chris Chukwuneke found inspiration to play football from as close as you could possibly get it. Raised by his mother Florence in Edison, New Jersey, Chukwuneke actually shared a bed with his brother, who had already shown Chris what could be achieved on the gridiron:

“My older brother really got me into football. He played football at JP Stevens public school and broke all sorts of records. Now I was playing pop warner at this time, but seeing what he was doing at high school really pushed me to aspire to the same level. Thankfully he was a senior when I was a freshman, so we were able to play with each other that last year. Getting to share the field with him was a really cool experience.”

Football may look like a Chukwuneke family affair, but if Chris’ mother had anything to do with it he may well have been destined for a different sport:

“I started off doing a lot of track. My mom, she didn’t really like the physicality of football, so she tried to get us to do anything else possible! Soccer, basketball, anything but football. But it got to a point in high school where I wasn’t getting any taller, i’d tapped out around five-eleven, six feet tall. Middle school, I was the tallest kid in school and basketball was definitely on the radar for a time. But I just never grew again. Besides, I always had a love, a passion and a knack for football. I was pulled towards it from the start.”

Inspired by the success of his brother, it was inevitable being a ball carrier would feature prominently in Chukwuneke’s early career – although he was more than willing to play any position to get game time:

“It all started in pop warner. I was one of the more athletic kids on the team – I smashed the single season touchdown record, with like 23 scores in a pop warner team. I always loved the ball in my hands, and that translated to high school. Although when I got there, my brother was actually the star running back, so I got no time there! I actually played linebacker that freshman year – the coaches obviously wanted to get me on the field, but they weren’t taking touches away from my brother. I also played a bit of receiver too, until he graduated and got out of my way! As a sophomore I picked up that running back role again, and had a good year for JP Stevens – rushed for 1,000 yards, which put me on the map. But seeing how my brother struggled for attention at a small public school, we made the decision to switch me over to St. John Vianney. And 1,300 yards rushing in a season, top running back in the state, all-state mentions; I’d say the decision worked out well for me.”

Making Changes

As a running back, Chris Chukwuneke was a bonafide high school prospect in his own right. But a lack of big time offers – coupled with a persistent coach – took his career path in a totally different direction:

“I actually had a handful of offers to play running back at college, mostly from CAA schools. Delaware, Villanova – who I was actually committed to as a Junior – and a few others. But there was this one coach who always managed to get inside my head, telling me I was a good running back, but I had the body, athleticism and skillset to be a DB in college – he was adamant if I wanted to get into the league in the future, it would be in the secondary. And it made sense; at high school I was about 170lbs, struggled to put on weight at that time, and figured I’d have to put on 25, 30 pounds if I wanted to stay at running back in college. Playing at safety gave me a quicker route to seeing the field. So I went to a prep school for one year, played both sides of the ball, and was able to put a little highlight tape together of me on defense instead of offense.”

Chukwuneke headed to The Peddie School, a prestigious prep school in the New Jersey area. Fully embracing a new position, the next twelve months were dedicated to polishing a resume fit for a college football program:

“Prep school is like a postgraduate year for high school students. Peddie was really expensive; we’re talking like $40k a year for parents who want to ensure that their kids are able to go to a top notch college or university. Luckily I didn’t pay that amount, but it was a lot of money. Obviously kids take that route for different reasons, mostly academic, but for me it was about getting some extra film that would give me that scholarship.”

Switching position at this stage of a career proved to be a real crossroads moment for Chukwuneke. Now, he had shown he could excel at two positions on the gridiron – even if his future teammates didn’t believe him!

“It’s funny, none of my teammates at college could believe I was a running back at high school – let alone one of the best in the state. Me and Isaiah Pacheco, we were in the same class, and if you Google our names the numbers will be very similar. I’ve just watched him run all over the Ravens last weekend. I was a legit running back back then, but I knew my future was at safety.”

Heading To Harrisonburg

With some serious film in the secondary under his belt, Chris Chukwuneke felt ready to entertain college football offers. Like a lot of recruits, the process was not kind to him. But unlike a lot of recruits, Chukwuneke didn’t just sit on his hands and accept it; instead, he got creative:

“I felt like I was a little under recruited at Peddie. I had three offers, but I thought my tape deserved more interest. I remember speaking to a coach at JMU a few years back, and I decided to reach out to him, fire my film over and see what happens. Thirty minutes later, he messaged me back! Asking a bit about the switch to safety, told me he was impressed with what he saw. We exchanged details; I went down to Harrisonburg that weekend to watch them against Sam Houston State, and they blew them out. The defense had six picks that day, and I was sold – I definitely wanted to be in on that!”

Sitting opposite Chris, even virtually, you get a sense he still feels a little disrespected when it comes to recruiting, something perhaps he has used as fuel to forge an impressive football career ever since. Despite visits to local Power 5 teams like Rutgers and Syracuse, no offer from the FBS came. In retrospect, I doubt ‘Chuck’ would have it any other way, finding a forever home at a school that enjoyed incredible success during his time there. Accepting the scholarship offer from James Madison University, Chris appreciated a winning culture – as well as a defined pathway to development and success: 

“I obviously redshirted that first season at James Madison. It was inevitable; the lack of defensive experience I had, just one year of tape, I was talented but raw. And going from a bad program and an okay program at high school to a dominant one at college, it was very different at first. The locker room, the vibes, it’s totally different. The guys in there know they’re about to put up 45 on a team and dominate on defense! As a redshirt freshman, all I got to do was run up and down on special teams and make a couple of tackles where I could, but it’s a culture of winning. And to see that confidence amongst the group, it really filtered down to the younger guys like me who were developing. It’s infectious. The senior class when I came to JMU – they were special. They really set the foundation for how the Dukes as a program is today. Sadly we never won the big one, we had to go through North Dakota State every year. But considering the length of my college career, and I don’t think I lost more than ten games during that time – not a lot of guys can say that.”

An Unforeseen Obstacle

After ‘running around on special teams’ as a redshirt freshman, Chris Chukwuneke was finally set to embrace a larger role on the Dukes’ defense. A global pandemic had other ideas:

“COVID proved to be a huge hurdle in terms of my path to getting on the field. I’d had that really good freshman year, was trending upwards, potentially looking to start at nickel or rover, but unfortunately I’d dislocated my shoulder which meant surgery ruled me out for a time – then a torn labrum did the same for a longer stretch. Then I got COVID, and ended up dropping like twenty, thirty pounds. It was insane – if you go to the yearly roster pictures on the JMU site you’ll see me at 185, 185, then all of a sudden 162! I bounced back and ended the season well, recorded my first pick and made some tackles in the playoffs, but never managed to lock down the starting job.”

After an elongated road to college ball, Chuck would have been excused for being frustrated by a further setback. Instead, it spurred him on – and with the help of one particular member of the JMU coaching staff proved to be the catalyst for making changes to achieve some incremental gains:

“After that COVID year, I just put my foot down in terms of how I lived my life. On the field, off the field, I had a different mindset. It was go time – I was able to put on great, healthy weight, get faster, bigger, stronger. I attribute a lot of that to our strength and conditioning coach Derek Owens – he’s top notch. He’s always on the list of best coaches in his role, and however high or low he is we always think he should be even higher. He changed my body and allowed me to be the best athlete I could possibly be.”

After that, it was just a case of waiting for an opportunity – and when it came, Chuck was more than ready:

“I got my first start early in my redshirt junior year. The starting rover got a foot injury, which opened the door for me. The rest is history – I was ready, and never gave that position back up the rest of my time at JMU. The defensive coordinator came up to me after the fifth game and basically told me the job was mine now, which gave me the confidence and job security to play free and ball out. That long journey, through COVID, it was all worth it – it made me the man and the player I am today.”

Stepping Up

It’s quite clear that Chris Chukwuneke is a thinker, someone who is methodical when it comes to a process. To see the plan come to fruition like it did at JMU has resulted in a self-confidence in his abilities that the tape backs up – and being ready to deputize at any position as he strived for game time stands him in good stead for the future:

“My first position at JMU was nickel, before I locked down that rover spot. I was a really good man coverage guy, we ran a lot of two-man, press-man. I could bump and run with guys, even though I was a deep high safety with a lot of range. When injury struck, I was pulling double duties in different roles in drills. One time I had more than twenty snaps in a row playing press-man. I was dog tired, but I wasn’t giving that up! I had like four PBU’s that day, and the coaches knew I could do anything in the back end. Putting that versatility on tape, being that swiss army knife in the secondary, it helps me stand out. Whatever the job needs to be, I can accomplish it.”

Such is the length of time since James Madison suffered a losing season (2002, in case you were wondering), success over Chris’ time in Harrisonburg almost seems like a foregone conclusion. But that does a disservice to a program that made the jump from the FCS to the FBS prior to the 2022 season. Instead of struggling with the step up, JMU waltzed into the Sun Belt, won 8 games, and showed they belonged. Chuck is understandably proud of how he and his teammates handled the transition:

“It was satisfying. All the work we had put in, the culture we’d created – we just had a mentality that, whoever was opposite us on the field, we could win. We were always competitive in the games against FBS schools when we were at the FCS level anyway, so the step up didn’t intimidate us. We dreamed of having that chance to prove ourselves, to prove we were all FBS quality as individuals. Not that there’s not talent at the FCS – there’s ballers everywhere you turn. But there’s an aura around FBS football, and we showed we were more than at that level. We showed what we were about.”

Unparalleled Success

If the first season in the FBS was impressive, the second year was spectacular for JMU; winning 11 games, and even circumventing archaic NCAA regulations to head to their first bowl game at the FBS level. In late October, the Dukes even cracked the AP Top 25. Chris Chukwuneke was proud how his final year at Bridgeforth Stadium ended:

“We had a great year last year. My achilles injury sadly meant I missed the bowl game, and it didn’t go our way. But if you’d told me as a redshirt freshman that we were going to go into the Sun Belt at the FBS level and dominate, I would have taken it. We knew we could do it, we just didn’t know how, or how long it would take us to acclimate. We were so confident we could win, and we did. I’m really grateful to JMU for pulling the strings to make that jump up to the FBS. It was a special way for me to end my career.”

Whilst Chukwuneke began his JMU career under Mike Houston, he has only ever seen the field playing for Curt Cignetti and his team – a coaching staff that remained largely intact through the last five years. Chris was full of praise for the robust structure he worked within – in a sport where nothing in that regard is guaranteed:

“The staff consistency was huge. I think in my time there, from that redshirt freshman year when I started playing, all we really lost was one strength coach, one d-line coach and one defensive coordinator. Considering how good we were doing under Coach Cig (Curt Cignetti), that lack of staff turnover is incredible. It just made things so easy for the guys. And Coach Cignetti also does a great job of preparing his coaches to step up too, so the linebacker coach became the DC – nothing really changed in terms of scheme, culture or expectation. The benefits that brings for players like me and the guys, it’s not to be underestimated. You can’t grow without that consistency. JMU and Coach Cig, they deserve a lot of praise for that.”

Changing Focus

With a successful college career in the books, Chris Chukwuneke once again readies himself for another brutal process; fighting for a career in the NFL. Much like before, there are no promises, but considering the journey, Chuck is rightly banking on himself to beat the odds. So much so, that his draft preparations have taken an untimely hit as he looks for the right team who can represent his best interests:

“It was rough at first. I was semi-locked into one agent early on, but we didn’t find common ground on some things. I wanted to be in Tampa, at Athlete Innovations, because I really trust and believe in Cliff and the team down here. They wanted me somewhere else, so we parted ways. After that, it’s late in the game, and I’m somewhat behind the 8-ball when it comes to representation now. And agents open doors, in terms of all-star games, eyes on you, etc. They really push your name out there. Not having that early on has obviously put me at a disadvantage. Then there’s the help with funding for training, things of that nature. But speaking to scouts, I know I have the ability. And if you back yourself 100%, you should stick to your convictions. Agents can only do so much – at the end of the day, I’m the one running my forty, doing the jumps, all the drills. If I run a 4.8, it doesn’t matter if I have representation or not. And if I run a 4.4, I’m sure there’ll be interest from agents at that point. I’m betting on myself.”

Once again, Chukwuneke is forging a different path, and much like a year at prep school, it doesn’t come cheap. In that regard, he is eternally grateful to his family for the unwavering support – both financial and otherwise – they offer him throughout this process. Chris intends to repay them with laser-focused dedication to perfecting his craft; and right now, that involves a totally different training regime and mindset:

“This is something Cliff hammered into us early. You’re not training for football. Position drills are fancy, important and all, but if you can’t backpedal against air, then you don’t deserve to be in the league. Sure, we’re gonna work on things like that, but it’s not the main emphasis right now. Your pro day is about beating that clock. What can you do to maximize your chance against that clock? Essentially, how do you become the best track athlete possible in an eight-week span? You’re totally rewiring things – stances, starts, driving off the right leg. Then there’s the little cheats so to speak; lunging, reaching and all those intricacies – it’s really a numbers game.”

Prepping For Pro Day

All the intense work Chris Chukwuneke is embracing is with one date in mind. March 19th is the James Madison pro day, an event that represents one final audition for Chuck and his fellow Dukes draft hopefuls. Chris mentions how he expects some bigger names amongst his former teammates should help attract a good crowd over to Harrisonburg – but once they get here, he’s determined they acknowledge one more prospect who has what it takes to make an impact at the next level:

“I’m a guy you wanna take a chance on. I understand my projection, and I know how crucial pro day is to affecting that one way or another. So for me, it’s a chance to show them my explosiveness, and allow them to go watch the tape and see it matches when I’m on the field too. Fast, rangy – my first ever pick was a run from the opposite hash to the other sideline. I want them to leave JMU thinking ‘Dang! How did we almost miss that one?’. And I’m confident I can project myself well in conversation too – I’ve always been a talker, and my mom says I should have been a lawyer! I’ll be able to show them my smarts, sell myself as a cerebral athlete and an intelligent student of the game too.”

With that in mind, I ask Chris about the difficulties in dispelling myths in people’s views. The phrase ‘draft stock’ is bandied about recklessly at this time of year, with opinion too easily considered fact – but Chuck is only concerned with what he can control:  

“You just gotta get your head down and work. You can only disprove perception one way, and that’s at the biggest job interview of your life. There’s going to be scouts there watching, which for some of us prospects, isn’t something you take for granted. My film stands on its own merits – watch it, and you’ll see you’re gonna get a ball player. It’s just a case of intriguing them enough to go watch it some more. I don’t think there are any concerns about my size and speed, but if there is it can be put to bed on March 19th.”

Grounded With Gratitude

In the midst of a grueling NFL Draft process, it can be easy for prospects to have tunnel vision right now, with zero acknowledgement of what the grind is all for, just in case they tempt fate in some way. Chris Chukwuneke doesn’t strike me as the superstitious type, so I ask him what he’s going to do when the big weekend comes. In classic grounded fashion, he’s ready to take whatever comes his way in his stride – knowing that it’s what happens afterwards that is actually more important:

“I won’t have any big plans. I’ll just be with my immediate family, trying to keep relaxed, and be ready for whatever comes. Because you can be projected to go somewhere, and often the reality is wildly different. Training with Isaiah Bolden down here, he tells us how he was supposed to go in the 4th round, and went in the 7th – and he ran a 4.3! So you gotta be prepared for everything, but just know that once you get that opportunity, you gotta make the most of it. And more importantly, being thankful for that opportunity, whatever and wherever it is. Just let me get my foot in the door, and they’re going to find it very difficult to get me out again.”

There is soon to be a new member of the Chukwuneke family, with Chris recently getting engaged. His fiancée, Kennedy, is actually the sister of one of Chuck’s former JMU teammates, something he described as weird at first but ‘beautiful’ now. It is with this family – both old and new – that he cannot wait to share a special moment with:

“Getting that call? It would mean the world, man. All the hardships, struggles that my mother went through to get me here, I could repay that. I get a little emotional about it because even now she’s doing so much for me, helping me financially and allowing me to chase my dream. I really want to repay her for that. And my fiancée too – she’s been holding things down whilst I’m down here in Tampa grinding away. We’ve only just moved to Charlotte, and she’s over there running her business and allowing me to really focus in on this process. I’m really thankful to them – I can’t wait to turn round to them and say ‘we’ve made it’.”

Mock Draft





A huge thank you to Chris for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchdown wishes him well in his future career.