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Idaho Vandals’ Alfonso Onunwor has learned to be a leader and top-flight receiver

Idaho’s Alfonso Onunwor pauses in the end zone before the opening kickoff against Sacramento State on Thursday, August 31, 2017, at the Kibbie Dome. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho’s Alfonso Onunwor pauses in the end zone before the opening kickoff against Sacramento State on Thursday, August 31, 2017, at the Kibbie Dome. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

With five regular season games left and still, possibly, a bowl game for the 2-5 Vandals, Alfonso Onunwor’s senior season is progressing to the point the University of Idaho’s leading receiver for yards this year can contemplate the end of it.

As with many seniors there is the unspoken irony that as he is getting really good at football the chance to keep playing it is coming to a close.

“It’s everybody’s dream to keep playing,” he says, and he is open to opportunities to continue to play professionally. But there is the very real possibility the last time he gets to suit up is Dec. 2, when the Vandals travel to Georgia State.

While statistically his best game remains the nine catches for 117 yards he put up last year against New Mexico State, Onunwor’s eight catches for 89 yards against a higher caliber University of Missouri of the Southeastern Conference last week was one of the few bright spots in a 68-21 rout, and Idaho coach Paul Petrino said “Alfonso might have had his best game in two years.”

Onunwor came to Idaho with an eye-catching resume from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. His 75 catches there tied him for second in the nation among junior college receivers, and in his first year with the Vandals he finished third on the team in receiving with 39 catches for 403 yards.

Already this year he is leaving those numbers in the rear view mirror. His 31 catches trail only Jacob Sannon’s 40 for the Vandals, and his 445 receiving yards lead the team. This despite missing one game with an injury.

“I love catching touchdowns, running routes, being out there on the field,” Onunwor said.

Watch him now, he has quick but quiet hands and always seems to catch balls in stride. In practice one day this week he caught a 30-yard fade route for a touchdown from quarterback Matt Linehan. Onunwor half-turned to get the ball as his momentum carried him the other direction, and he wore a cornerback like a shadow. But he still managed to make the catch look as unremarkable as an afterthought.

Also, he has improved in workmanlike aspects of playing football. Since last spring, “I got better at watching film. I know what I need to look for,” he says. In practice, “I’m definitely going harder this year. I want to be able to show what I can do and be a leader for my position group.”

Onunwor has seen former players return to watch practices with the desire “to be able to come here and just hit somebody” shining all over them. If that is him in the near future, he predicts “what I am going to miss most is the brotherhood, the locker room, being around people in the locker room.”

To get to this point where he has fashioned a career at Idaho successful enough that he will miss it when it is over, Onunwor said he needed to go through the test of junior college. He went to Coffeyville after high school in Cleveland, where he was named to the Ohio all-state team. “Coming out of juco, you just appreciate everything more. It’s definitely a struggle, but it’s a struggle I needed to grow up and mature.”

He was lucky enough to have a mentor. His older brother, Ovunda Onunwor, after interrupting his own career as a Division II linebacker to return home to work, resurrected it to join his younger brother on the team in Kansas.

“With him being there, he showed me how to work,” says Onunwor. “He showed me the right way to do things.”

The brothers still talk every day. “Sometimes we just check up on each other.”

His older brother is back in Cleveland where he has a career as a building inspector. He and about 20 family members drove to Kalamazoo to see Onunwor and the Vandals play Western Michigan this year, and he will be coming to Moscow for Idaho’s senior night against Coastal Carolina Nov. 18. Onunwor has had family visit him in Moscow before. “They like it, just like I like it.”

When the Vandals play host to the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks Saturday, Onunwor may have a chance to meet up with another former Coffeyville teammate. Warhawks defensive tackle Tyler Johnson “my freshman year gave me my ‘welcome to college’ hit,” said Onunwor, grinning ruefully. “I was trying to run a screen.”

It was a valuable if jarring lesson. “He put a time clock in my head,” Onunwor says. Game-to-game, it is a meter that allows him to gauge where he is in relation to defenders.

Another clock is also ticking for Onunwor, stirring him to make the most of his remaining time at Idaho. Every senior football player has this timepiece. It marks the end of games.

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