By Chris Attwood
The Amherst College football program has had an abundance of success during its rich, 137-year history that includes six NESCAC titles, and seven perfect seasons, including back-to-back 8-0 marks in 2014 and 2015 (the first time that feat has been accomplished). Along the way, Amherst football has boasted some of the nation's finest student-athletes on both sides of the ball, and this year is no different. For head coach E.J. Mills, now in his 20th season at the helm, one of the hallmarks of his teams' successes has been defense.
"Everybody always asks me 'How have you been so consistent?'" Mills said. "It all starts with the defensive line. There's a reason that in the NFL, the first picks are quarterbacks and defensive linemen. If you're going to be about defense, to me, that's where it starts."
Enter the Purple & White's front three: defensive end Niyi Odewade – a 6-foot, 1-inch, 260 pound senior from Newark, N.J. and a Second Team All-NESCAC selection a year ago; Paul Johnson, a 6-foot, 270 pound senior nose tackle from Moorestown, N.J., a First Team All-NESCAC honoree last season, and a 2016 team captain; Isaiah Holloway, a 6-foot, 1-inch, 255 pound senior defensive tackle from Oakdale, Conn.
Through the first two games of the 2016 campaign, Amherst, led by this abundantly talented group of senior defensive linemen, has held its opponents to a nation-low 7.5 rushing yards per game and has allowed just 5.0 points per game. Not surprisingly, this unit of highly motivated leaders is focused on more than producing staggering statistics.
"We're more concerned with 'Did I step six inches to the right?', or 'Did I come off the block and hit the guy I was supposed to?'" Johnson explained. "That's what's gotten us to the point where we are now. We've had success, but we've had success because we've focused on doing things the right way. Now we are trying to take that to the next level and groom the next set of younger guys."
"Yes, we've had a good start to the season," Holloway added, "but as Coach Mills always says, success can hide some problems, and there are a lot of things we have to work on."
Defensive line coach and special teams coordinator Eddy Augustin has witnessed the growth of his senior defensive linemen, and its effect on the younger players has not gone unnoticed.
"What's great is that they're always hungry to be better," Augustin said of the senior trio. "These three have always done things so well, but you find something that maybe they can improve on and they work very hard to get better at those things. The younger kids are seeing that. These seniors are so open to talking about that, and taking the younger players aside and showing them how to be better and why you do things a certain way. It's also showing the younger guys how to watch film, and what they look for. It's every little aspect, and yet the seniors are still fully engaged in their own process."
The process extends far beyond the playing field – as it does for so many student-athletes who don the purple and white – and each example of this process provides a unique twist that makes the tapestry that is the Amherst community so interesting.
"Try and find a History major and two Pre-Med guys who can sit around a table and actually have a conversation with each other," Johnson, the History major in the group, quipped. "That's a pretty cool opportunity that Amherst gives you."
"One of the reasons I chose Amherst was that coach Mills preaches that he wants you to become the best version of yourself that you can be," Odewade, a Chemistry major on a Pre-Med track, stated. "He really does that through his coaching style, and the way he helps you succeed not only on the field, but also in the classroom."
"You need to be able to compartmentalize," Mills said. "You need to be able to focus on football when it's football time, and then step out of that when it's school time."
For Odewade and his two teammates, the concept of compartmentalization has played a major role in how they've developed through their experiences both on and off the field.
"This past summer, I did an internship in kidney research at Harvard Medical School, and the year before that I did one at Yale," Odewade stated. "At any point I could have said that this was too overwhelming, but the concept of compartmentalizing has really helped me deal with that stress of balancing academics and athletics and use it to my advantage."
"It took me a while to figure out what it [compartmentalizing] really means and how to implement it in my life outside of football," Holloway added. "Now that I have figured that out, every day you come in and suit up, and figure out what it is you need to focus on."
Holloway, a Psychology major on the Pre-Med track, has also benefited from opportunities outside of football.
"The network here is incredible," he noted. "Never have I been to a place that's so unassuming. Here it's true, the world is your oyster. I learned that this past summer from a cool internship I had at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I had never really had a serious lab experience like that, and never thought I would. Amherst opens doors, especially being an athlete. Every sport knows that there are alumni that are committed to Amherst because what it's given them. Football alums are no different. It's really awesome to benefit on your team now, from alumni on teams from 30 years ago, because they know what it means to be an Amherst football player. It's great to know that they still have a fire and a passion, and are still on our team."
Johnson echoed that notion, and took it one step further. "This summer I got to live in New York and complete a finance internship, but also get to write a thesis this fall and throughout the year," he noted, adding that you probably won't find many guys within a position group that are writing theses as is the case with Odewade and Holloway. "You have the opportunity to work at the things you want to, and that you really love. You get to do that and not sacrifice football. You're not going to get that chance anywhere else in the country."
As these three seniors play out their collegiate football careers this fall, they are each trying to figure out what the future holds, but are mindful that you never know where opportunities might take you. For Johnson, the goal is to work in finance, specifically banking, after holding internships in the field during the last two summers. For Odewade and Holloway, the plan is to attend the best medical schools they can with thoracic surgery, and anesthesia being the end goals for each respectively.
One constant that each defensive lineman will take away from his time at Amherst is the unique impact that coach Augustin has had in each of their lives.
"He's very good at making people feel uncomfortable," Johnson joked. "That may sound like a bad thing on the surface, but learning to live with being uncomfortable helps us prepare for all different types of situations, both on and off the field."
"He brings a lot of excitement to the field," Odewade added. "He brings a level of enthusiasm that makes football really fun. He makes you want to play hard."
"As a person and as a friend/role model, he has been great." Holloway stated. "He's a psych guy, I am a psych guy. Being able to have that connection has been awesome. Not only is he a ferocious coach, but he's a ferocious friend, and he really has been great for all of us. He not only cares about us as football players, but as humans."