Lute Olson used to joke about hiding the well-built Fendi Onobun from Arizona football coach Mike Stoops, a "plan" that worked out pretty well for the Wildcat basketball program.
While Onobun did not reach the high expectations he brought from Houston on the court, he contributed personality and unselfishness while sticking with Olson and two interim successors through last season.
He never did play football for Stoops, either, though Olson left a loophole open that just might result in Onobun appearing in next week's NFL draft.
Because the former UA basketball coach pulled Onobun from a planned redshirt season in 2005-06, Onobun was able to finish his basketball eligibility and graduate in four years, leaving a year on the NCAA's five-year eligibility "clock" to play another sport at another school.
So the ready-made tight end went home, paid his own way through graduate courses at the University of Houston … and is now seen as an eye-popping if very raw prospect who could warrant an NFL draft pick.
The fact that he hadn't previously played football since junior high is actually something of a positive in NFL circles, labeling him as having considerable upside, and it's certainly not a career path Onobun regrets.
Onobun says football programs at Oklahoma and LSU made minor inquiries about him while he starred in basketball at Alief Taylor High School, but that he does not wonder how far along he would be if he played football throughout college.
"I'm a big believer that things happen when one door closes and another one opens," Onobun said. "I can't look back and say, 'what if?' Shoot, what if coach Olson didn't pull me off the redshirt? Then we wouldn't even be talking about this."
In fact, Onobun left Tucson with little idea he had a future in football. He collected his UA degree last spring, interned with the Phoenix Suns in their video department while considering a pro basketball career in Belgium.
But having worked out successfully for the Bills, Panthers and Patriots at UA last April, Onobun decided in midsummer to give football a shot for real. He sent a video of himself to Houston's staff, told them about a 4.5 40-yard time he ran at UA and was invited to walk on.
While Houston's schemes didn't allow for him to catch many passes - Onobun hauled in only two passes for 33 yards all season - he blocked two extra points, worked on his pass- and run-blocking skills and became a Conference USA special teams player of the week.
"He improved every day," said Tony Levine, Houston's special teams coordinator. "He had a setback in August with a sprained ankle, and you could tell he hadn't played in 10 years. But he kept getting better. I wish we would have had him for more than just a year."
After the season, Onobun's stock continued to grow, especially after he blew away scouts during Houston's pro day. Among other results, Onobun barreled his 6-foot-5 1/2-inch frame down the 40 - this time in 4.48 seconds.
"One scout told me Fendi's 40 time would already make him the second-fastest player on his team," Levine said.
So now, Levine figures, if the Cougars didn't get a chance to finish the developmental job, maybe an NFL team will. While Levine said Onobun will have to adjust greatly to the speed of the NFL game, he said he expected Onobun would get drafted and, if he doesn't make a roster, likely would stay on a team's developmental "taxi" squad.
Onobun said he's already visited the Seattle Seahawks for a physical and interviews, while Levine said Onobun will visit the Giants, Panthers and Jets next week. Atlanta and Miami also have inquired about Onobun, Levine said.
"When teams are flying you in, they're pretty serious about you," Levine said. "Somebody's going to develop him. Whatever team that takes him could develop him for two years, and they could have an absolute steal."
One that Olson, quietly, might have predicted years ago.
"No, it doesn't" seem surprising, Olson said. "Fendi has great hands, that great body and the work ethic."
• UA assistant coach Book Richardson said he turned down an offer from new St. John's coach Steve Lavin to join his staff, a decision that could keep UA's East Coast recruiting pipeline flowing. The New York native helped recruit UA freshmen Kevin Parrom and MoMo Jones, and is now involved with a number of New York-area prospects in all high school classes.
"If I didn't feel in my heart that we had a chance to do something here, it would be a no-brainer" to leave, Richardson said. "I feel (coach) Sean Miller is one of the best in college basketball and I'm fortunate to be in that family. … I want to get to a Final Four. I think we will have an opportunity to do that here."
• Outgoing UA guard Nic Wise finished the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament on Saturday by going 3 for 6 with nine points. He had four assists, one turnover and two steals in 21 minutes. Over three games, Wise averaged 8 points on 7-19 shooting and had 10 assists to six turnovers.
BY THE NUMBERS
Fendi Onobun's numbers from the University of Houston pro day:
• Height: 6 feet 5 1/2 inches
• Weight: 252
• 40-yard dash: 4.48 seconds
• Vertical jump: 37.5 inches
• Broad jump: 11 feet 1 inch
• Shuttle (5-10-5) time: 4.15
• Note: The vertical jump and broad jump were team highs while Onobun's shuttle time tied for first among the 12 Houston players who worked out.
Source: Houston Chronicle