Photo by Christine Troyke
The tall, gangly sophomore was a lifelong quarterback, a position he held since he first strapped on a helmet as a 6-year-old. He could run and he could throw, traits that made him a dangerous dual threat and the heir apparent to record-breaking Mikey Tamburo.
C.J. Uzomah figured that 2008 season at North Gwinnett would be an apprenticeship as a signal-caller, a season-long course in learning the finer points of the Bulldogs' detailed offense while backing up the most prolific passer in Gwinnett County history.
Halfway through the season, those plans changed when North's top receiver was injured. Needing another receiver, the coaches turned to their quarterback-in-waiting, a 10th-grader nervous about making his varsity debut at a position he didn't know.
"I was scared to death. I won't lie," said Uzomah, now a senior leader for the defending Region 7-AAAAA champion Bulldogs. "My first touchdown was a screen and the only reason why I scored probably is because I did not want to get hit. I was so scared just to get touched. Coach (Bob) Sphire was like, 'Why are you scared? You're 6-5.' And I was like, 'Those guys are big.' Even then. It was nerve-racking, but once I got used to it and we got into the playoffs, it was kind of fun."
Though Uzomah (pronounced you-zahm-uh) didn't realize it at the time, that experience was a glimpse of his future in football.
Now 6-foot-51/2 and 235 pounds, he is still North's starting quarterback. He was good enough there that some of the nation's top college programs wanted him as a QB. Others wanted him as a wide receiver, fully appreciating how valuable a kid his size can be at the position.
One of those was Auburn, where he committed two weeks ago.
He projects as a tight end/H-back or wideout at the college level.
"I talked to my parents about it and my thinking was, if I have the potential to play in the NFL, it would be a lot easier to go at another position besides quarterback," said Uzomah, who had more than 25 high-level offers but chose Auburn over LSU. "In the last draft there were pretty much only three quarterbacks who were drafted high. We kind of thought about that and it kind of swayed us a little more."
Not that he has totally abandoned quarterback. Sphire figures inventive Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will work Uzomah into packages as a "Wildcat" quarterback. And North will definitely rely on him at the position, even with promising young QB Scotty Hosch ready to go.
Sphire said Uzomah's quarterbacking abilities are even better now than they were last season, when he threw for 1,723 yards and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes.
"I think he thrives in our system because we have the ability to spread the field and that opens it up because he's such a threat as a runner," Sphire said. "And he's got that big arm, so we're able to stretch the field vertically. I'll tell you, I've been really pleased with him this summer. His footwork in the quick game and when he's uncomfortable, under pressure is much better. ... This time last year subtle pocket movements gave him problems with his throwing motion being in sync. But the young man has really improved with that. He's made a lot of progress."
So has Hosch. Because of that, Uzomah won't be a full-time quarterback this season. He will see action at wide receiver, a switch that will prepare him at the position he'll play in the SEC.
It also will help his high school team tremendously, getting a quarterback like Hosch, who could start at other places, on the field while also giving the Bulldogs a 6-5 receiver at times.
"When we split him out, people want to double him, and that opens up a numbers game for us elsewhere," Sphire said. "And if you single-cover him, he's a major matchup problem for a high school DB with his size."
That size makes Uzomah an intriguing prospect at the college level and possibly beyond.
Sphire could see him playing closer to his current weight and staying at wideout. Or he could play at 260 to 265 pounds and become a threat at tight end.
"Only certain guys have those kinds of skills and size," Sphire said. "(NFL tight ends) Antonio Gates and Kellen Winslow, guys like that. Only certain folks have the ability to be a big inside receiver or a wide receiver. He's one of those guys."
It's a unique skill set that even Uzomah can't ignore. If he wanted to, he could have been a college quarterback at a prominent school -- like his No. 2 choice, LSU.
But he chose what he hopes becomes "the right path," what his last name means in his grandfather's native Nigeria.
"I need to work on a little bit of everything at receiver," Uzomah said. "My route running isn't where it needs to be, getting off a man press. I've been working on that a lot with our receivers coach after practice. He said he'd help me out with anything I needed. I'm trying to learn the little things at receiver.
"It's different definitely but I like it and I think it will help me in the long run."