The spectacle of high school football in Texas often sets unrealistic expectations. With 20,000 seat stadiums and individual — indoor — practice facilities, if Texas prep football isn’t at least on a Division III level, it’s close.
However, with the level of talent and accessibility in Texas, a lot of talented recruits fall by the wayside. As one of the fastest — literally — recruits in Texas, Che Nwabuko didn’t receive nearly the in-state hype he deserved.
Pitt wasn’t the first school to offer Nwabuko out of Manor High School in Texas, but then-wide receivers coach Brennan Marion identified and strongly pursued the track star out of central Texas as a key part of Pitt’s 2022 class.
While high school football stars are commonly touted as boasting “track star speed,” that isn’t often the case. If you watch enough Hudl tape, you’ll see prospects turn quick catches into 80-yard catch and runs. Nwabuko legitimately boasts track star speed.
As a 16-year-old junior at Manor, Nwabuko turned in a 10.44 100-yard dash performance at the Texas Class-5A state championships. That’s less than a half-second off Olympic qualifying speeds. That’s fast, and if you watch Nwabuko play, you’ll see it.
And, if it isn’t clear, Nwabuko ran a 10.44 as a 16-year-old. He’s still prepping for his senior season now.
Texas schools slept, and Pitt was one of the schools that jumped directly into the race for Nwabuko’s signature. He recognized Pitt’s tenacity in securing his signature and named Pitt in his final five, along with Michigan, Marshall, Liberty and Purdue in June. And after a visit to Pittsburgh just weeks later, he officially committed to Pitt.
— Che Nwabuko 📍 (@CheNwabuko1) June 27, 2021
Nwabuko’s connection with Marion is apparent, lauding his one-time primary recruiter and position coach as one of the best and a key figure in his journey to Pitt no less, but it’s the end result and not the process that he savored along the way.
Marion and Pitt were looking to add a level of speed to the program, and Nwabuko caught Marion’s eye in the process. The relationship was formed and Nwabuko’s eventual visit was an exciting, eye-opening experience that allowed him to almost immediately pledge himself to Pitt.
Nwabuko maintained his commitment to Pitt through his senior season, often expressing his excitement in joining Pitt upon the conclusion of his senior season at Manor, and when Marion eventually left for Texas, he wished nothing but the best for Marion. In an ironic shift between coach and player, Marion and Nwabuko switched sides and found themselves on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Even though Nwabuko officially signed his letter of intent while Marion was still a Pitt coach, Marion’s eventual departure for Texas didn’t sway Nwabuko’s dedication to Pitt one bit. It’s always been about the destination for him, and Marion helped him reach that destination. He wasn’t at all worried about Marion’s departure.
“Not at all,” Nwabuko told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “Actually, it was a blessing for (Marion) getting me up (to Pitt). Big props to that man, he’s a great man, great coach. So, big props to him for getting me up there and putting me in a situation.”
Nwabuko, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound athlete, wasn’t a top-ranked Texas recruit, but he consistently earned All-State honors as a running back and wide receiver. The 800th-ranked national recruit in the class of 2022, 117th-ranked wide receiver and 114th-ranked recruit out of Texas, left Texas because he wasn’t getting the interest, he felt he deserved in-state.
But Pitt was different. Where Texas schools laid off, Pitt ramped it up. And Nwabuko noticed.
“You know, Texas schools weren’t really giving me much hype,” Nwabuko said. “Pitt wanted me, I had the opportunity, and I took it.”
The lack of respect from schools in Texas, with in-state offers from only Texas State and UTSA, lit a fire in Nwakubo. Instead of just staying home, he’d go out and make a name for himself out of the state.
And with offers from Pitt, Marshall, Air Force, Kansas, Liberty, Louisiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Old Dominion, Purdue, UAB, Texas State and UTSA and interest from Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech, Nwabuko decided upon Pitt in betting upon himself to deliver out of state.
“I’m there for Pitt,” Nwabuko said, “I’m not there for any coach, so (I just have) do what I have to do and compete.”
However, it doesn’t hurt when a couple of Pitt coaches — including head coach Pat Narduzzi — make the trek out to Texas for an in-home visit. With Narduzzi and company unable to make it out to Texas this fall as Pitt fought for an ACC title, he was finally able to make it out with linebackers coach Ryan Manalac.
“Coach Narduzzi and coach Malanac came up to my house (Monday) and they took a home visit,” Nwabuko said. “So, that was real nice of them to be up there and seeing they have a strong relationship with me and just talking with me and just seeing how I was doing.”
Narduzzi and Manalac met with the Nwabuko family — which includes Chux II, Che’s father and trainer — to just get to know one another. Narduzzi and Manalac asked about everything, and Nwabuko had a lot of questions to be answered, asking about Pitt, the football team and life in general.
The one-on-one time with Narduzzi, getting to build a genuine, in-person connection, is important for Nwabuko. That legitimate connection is a good feeling. And it’s stuck with him throughout his entire process.
While Nwabuko is excited to get up to Pitt to begin his collegiate career in both football and track & field, he’s still got one more semester of high school at Manor left. His track career is important, and while he’ll be making the journey up to Pittsburgh in late June, he still has unfinished business.
After completing a high school career in which he racked up 1,281 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground (averaging just under eight and a half yards per attempt) and 1,533 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air (averaging just over 16 yards per reception), Nwabuko flashed his receiving potential as a senior.
With 739 yards and eight touchdowns on 45 receptions, all leading Manor wide receivers, Nwabuko was a threat to find the end zone every time he touched the ball. And he went out with a bang, racking up 199 yards and two touchdowns in his final game as a Mustang.
In my final HS 🏈 game at Manor High School (9 TDs in 9 career playoff games) #CNtime
• 7 catches
• 199 yards receiving
• 2 receiving TDs
• 3 carries
• 11 yards rushing
— Che Nwabuko 📍 (@CheNwabuko1) November 20, 2021
When Nwabuko finally arrives in Pittsburgh, with time to settle in as a student-athlete and get to work in both the classroom and on the practice field, he won’t just be limited as a football player. He’ll work as a track athlete too.
Nwabuko will compete in both track & field and football at Pitt, dominating on the track and on the gridiron as a Panther. And he feels like his training on the track will only make him faster as the football season wears on. As other players slow down, he’ll only be picking up steam.
“Once I get up there, I’m just gonna work real hard to get a spot in that starting lineup,” Nwabuko said. “I know they’re gonna use me in a lot of different ways, especially using my speed. Using me with jet sweeps, passes on the outside, just trying to use that speed on the field.”
Nwbuko’s speed is truly a weapon for Pitt to exploit, as his 10.44 time as a 16-year-old was fast enough to have qualified for a spot in the 2021 ACC Championship men’s 100-meter final, but he’s quick enough and evasive enough to be used as a Swiss army knife in Pitt’s offense.
Pitt’s receiving corps is loaded in 2022, and the trio of running backs (Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond Jr. and Vincent Davis) will be hard to earn time over, but Nwabuko’s speed is something that could allow him to make an early impact.
“I think I can (make an early impact),” Nwabuko said. “Just get up there, work my butt off and do what I have to do — even with classes. Just stay focused, do what I have to do in class, and I think I can be on that field.”
Hammond, Jordan Addison and Gavin Bartholomew have all emerged as key contributors on Pitt’s offense as true freshmen, and if Nwabuko has anything to say about it, he’ll be next.