Football was Drew Tuazama’s first love in athletics. Basketball offered him his first 15 minutes of fame.

Football is what eventually got him to Birmingham, where he’s beginning to shine as an edge defender for a UAB team that faces a big Conference USA road test on Saturday at Rice. Basketball turned him into a viral video star for a short time.

His viral moment came in the summer of 2015, a few months before he began his sophomore year at Knightdale High in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tuazama was 16 years old at the time and playing for Team Wall, an Adidas-sponsored team owned by NBA player John Wall. His team was in the championship game of a national summer tournament in Las Vegas. He followed up a missed shot with a dunk that shattered the backboard in the process.

“I wasn’t expecting to do that,” the 6-foot-5 Tuazama said. “After I broke it, they posted it, and it went from there. I was getting a lot of tweet shoutouts and stuff like that. The news came to my high school, interviewed me. It was a crazy time.”

By that time, though, Tuazama had decided football was his path to college. He received a basketball offer to St. John’s University but had several offers for football, where he was a standout tight end and defensive end. Tuazama was a non-qualifier out of high school and chose to attend prep school at Jireh Preparatory School in Matthews, North Carolina.

“It was humbling,” Tuazama said. “It made me look at life a little different.”

He did thrive on the football field, compiling 72 tackles and 12 sacks, before signing with Syracuse. Tuazama spent two years at Syracuse, playing in two games during a redshirt season in 2019 and playing in six games the next season. During that second year, he had seven tackles, two tackles for loss and blocked a punt against Clemson.

However, grade issues forced him to look for a new home. He made the trip to Scooba, Mississippi, and enrolled at East Mississippi Community College.

“That was another humbling experience,” Tuazama said. “Being in Scooba, Mississippi, it was different, really different.”

He learned that quickly.

“When I first arrived in Scooba, it was during the summer, and nobody was on campus, except for a few football players,” Tuazama said. “They were the ones from out of state, so they had to stay there. I was from out of state, so I had to stay every weekend. There was nothing to do. I didn’t have my TV, I had nothing. I was chilling, out there in the middle of nowhere doing nothing.”

On the field, he was playing for one of the top junior college teams in the nation. Tuazama contributed 32 tackles for a team that finished 9-1 and allowed 12.8 points per game. Off the field, he endured.

“Looking back on it, it flew by,” Tuazama said. “But, when I was in it, it felt like I was going to be there forever. I honestly don’t know how I got through it, just playing the game, I guess. Just a lot of sleepless nights.”

Once again, Tuazama had plenty of scholarship options. Tuazama said he got the most attention from UAB, South Alabama, Missouri and Ole Miss. His position coach at EMCC, Brandon Deaderick, was a teammate of UAB defensive line coach Kyle Tatum at the University of Alabama. Tuazama said that played a role in his early interest in the Blazers.

He had to finish work to get his degree from EMCC, so Tuazama didn’t arrive at UAB until just before fall camp. He hit the ground running.

“That was the mindset for me,” Tuazama said. “I just felt like trying my best every day, getting the reps I needed. Learning the playbook was the first step. For me, I learn best by doing it physically. I can learn on a whiteboard, but I’m more comfortable as a hands-on learner.”

It became quickly evident that not only was Tuazama going to work his way into the rotation, but he also had the versatility to play inside or outside.

“He is that kind of guy,” Tatum said of his versatility. “Last time I saw, he was 278 pounds. He’s put on that mass to be able to do that. I think he’s better off the edge, at times, he’s done things inside that are really good too. We really try to play him inside and outside. If he can get versatile, it opens up spots for him. We move those guys around a lot.”

Tuazama was solid in each of the first three games. His best game came against Georgia Southern, when his final total of five tackles and a pass breakup didn’t fully portray his impact in the win.

“Every week he gets better, every game he’s gotten better,” Tatum said. “With him, the sky is the limit, it really is. I’m excited about the direction he’s heading. Obviously, there’s mistakes he still makes, but he’s really locked in on the details and doing things right. That’s what we’re preaching every day – taking a step.”

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