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Ryan Zuke | MLive.com | May 2, 2019

College baseball: From walk-on status to Bo Jackson comparisons, Jordan Nwogu has transformed into a star atop Michigan's lineup

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ANN ARBOR — Michigan sophomore outfielder Jordan Nwogu sits in the Wolverines' home dugout Saturday, a lucid smile stretching across his face as he prepares to answer questions about the team's 10-1 win over Rutgers.

The Ann Arbor Pioneer alumnus has a lot to smile about these days. He is batting .350 in the leadoff spot for the Wolverines, who are in first place in the Big Ten with three weeks remaining in the regular season.

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From a walk-on, who wasn't even guaranteed a spot on the 35-man roster his freshman season, to an emerging MLB prospect, Nwogu is living the dream playing for his hometown team.

Michigan seventh-year head coach Erik Bakich said nobody is more deserving of success than Nwogu.

"He has gotten really good because of his work ethic," Bakich said. "Everyone is taking notice. As long as he doesn't get caught up in that stuff and remains that same kid who was fighting just to make the team -- if he keeps that mentality with his growth and improvement from here on out, he is going to play this game for a long time."

Michigan inked the 10th-ranked recruiting class in the nation in 2018, but Nwogu didn't enter his college career with the same pedigree as the other players in his class.

At 6-3, 235 pounds, he only had a handful of baseball offers out of high school, and most colleges viewed him more as a football player than an outfielder.

Still, Bakich saw enough raw talent on the diamond to take a chance on him. Nwogu had already earned an academic scholarship to Michigan, so playing baseball was an added bonus.

"His physicality stood out," Bakich said. "He is big, he's physical and he's fast. He was hurt in high school, so I don't think many schools got a lot of repetitions seeing him. Those were the big questions: Is he healthy, and is he going to play football or baseball?"

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It didn't take long for Bakich to realize he might have discovered a hidden gem. He raved about Nwogu's work ethic during fall and winter break, but early in the season, he primarily used the speedy outfielder as a pinch-runner.

"The growth that took place from September until the season started in February was exponential," Bakich said. "He spent more time over Christmas break and throughout the fall working on his swing, sending videos to us and asking, 'How does this look and what do you think?'

"He came back in January and, all of a sudden, you could start to see some traction where the athleticism in his body was starting to show up in baseball."

The Wolverines struggled out of the gate in 2018, falling to 4-11 after losing to Lawrence Tech, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, in their home opener.

That's when Nwogu caught his break. Bakich was searching for ways to jump-start his offense heading into a three-game series against Bowling Green and he decided to give the Ann Arbor native his first start.

Nwogu batted seventh and had two hits and two RBIs in three at-bats. He hit his first home run the following game and finished the series 7-for-11 with eight RBIs, garnering Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

He has been a fixture in the starting lineup ever since.

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"After I got a couple hits, I felt confident in my approach," Nwogu said. "I got up there and I wasn't nervous, which kind of slowed the game down. That was the biggest thing."

The Wolverines have thrived since moving Nwogu to the leadoff spot early in 2019. They are 31-11 overall and have won eight straight entering this weekend's three-game series at Maryland.

Nwogu doesn't fit the mold of a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he leads the Big Ten with a .481 on-base percentage. He also has four home runs and 22 RBIs.

"He looks like he should be playing viper for Don Brown (Michigan football's defensive coordinator)," Bakich said. "But he actually is a really good leadoff hitter.

"When you look at some players with his build and his skills, I have heard scouts use the comparison to Bo Jackson. He doesn't quite have the defense or arm strength yet that Bo had, but with his right-handed power and that type of speed and twitch and explosion, you can start to think that is not that far off."

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And he is excelling just across the street from the high school where he starred in two sports.

"He is well-liked by his teammates," Bakich said. "He has a lot of friends in the Ann Arbor community. He is one of those kids who is well-liked by a lot of people and has an expansive network of friends from playing football and baseball and going to Pioneer. He knows everyone and is a likable kid."

Focus on academics

Okey Nwogu, Jordan's father, grew up in Nigeria before moving to Canada when he was 16. Soccer and track and field were the most prominent sports in Nigeria, but academics always remained the top priority.

Okey and his wife, Uche Nwogu, both instilled that same mindset in Jordan at a young age.

Athletics always took a back seat growing up, and Jordan understood why. He graduated with a 3.96 GPA and planned on studying computer-science engineering at Michigan, regardless if he played baseball or not.

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"Our push was for academics," Okey said. "That's what is going to put food on the table and get you to where you need to go. Even if he didn't get to play baseball, our preference was for him was to go to Michigan.

"In my opinion, making it as a pro baseball player or football player, it is a long process."

Okey's first introduction into baseball was during the Toronto Blue Jays' glory days in the early 1990s, when they won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

He saw how the championships helped unify the city, but he still didn't understand all of the game's nuances.

Little did he know, it would become Jordan's passion growing up.

A close group of friends urged Jordan to try out for a local travel baseball team in sixth grade.

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"It was just a different world to me," Okey said. "Even when he did travel football, I was just surprised about the demand sports had on parents and everybody else.

"We kind of let him decide what he wanted to do. He played for the same team travel baseball team probably through his junior or senior year in high school. There were opportunities to play on travel teams all across the country, but we didn't feel the need to do that at that time. We didn't think he was going to be a big-time baseball player. It was one of those things that he enjoyed with his friends."

After watching him hit a few home runs in high school, Okey started realizing Jordan had special athletic abilities. But to now hear his son referred to as an MLB prospect in his second year with the Wolverines, he admits he didn't even see that coming.

"I thought it would be tough for him to get to start because the team was loaded with more established guys," Okey said. "I was pleasantly surprised he was able to do that his freshman year. Usually, you expect them to spend a year trying to do that. I think he put in a lot of hard work."

That hard work has translated into a well-rounded outfielder, who is on pace to collect several awards at the end of the season. He was an All-Big Ten second-team selection as a freshman after hitting .349 with six home runs and 29 RBIs.

"I definitely have a lot of confidence just based off the work we do with coaches and getting me to be more confident in my pitch selection and how to be able to drive the ball," Jordan said. "I feel pretty good."

Nwogu will be eligible for the MLB draft again after his junior season, but his only focus right now is helping the Wolverines win a Big Ten title and get back to the NCAA tournament.

"Most people who weren't superstars before they were superstars and had those humble beginnings are a lot more likable than a guy who thinks he is hot stuff," Bakich said.

"Jordan has that humility to him, which is a really likable trait. He is not outspoken, he is not conceded or cocky. He has got a lot of very good character traits, and that stems from his parents. He's got a great family and is emerging as a leader in our program." 

This article is written by Ryan Zuke from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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June 13-23/24, 2020
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