Mikial Onu wanted a fresh start and a bump in competition. Colorado wanted an experienced safety who could play right away.
On June 1, the two came together when Onu announced that he intends to his play his final season of college football with the Buffaloes.
“I’m very excited,” said Onu, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound graduate transfer who played 36 games at SMU. “One of the reasons why I wanted to transfer, on top of other reasons, is because I wanted to go up a level in competition. I’m just excited about playing in the Pac-12 and seeing different offenses and different players and different skill sets.”
Although he won’t officially be a Buff until he gets to campus in July, Onu can be penciled into a starting spot at safety, where CU is paper thin in experience.
The Buffs lost starters Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington and backups Daniel Talley and Kyle Trego to graduation. Then, promising sophomore Hasaan Hypolite, projected as a starter this fall, was dismissed from the team in April.
The rest of the group is filled with question marks, as Aaron Maddox missed spring with a shoulder injury, Trey Udoffia is still learning the position after moving over from cornerback, and Derrion Rakestraw and Isaiah Lewis show potential but have very little game experience. The Buffs also have incoming freshmen Trustin Oliver and Mark Perry.
A few weeks ago, Onu, who had also been looking at UCLA, Texas State and Texas Tech, began hearing from CU coaches.
“Colorado made more of an effort than some other schools,” he said. “And, being the program they are, it was a pretty easy decision or me. They expressed their need and it was pretty certain that they needed me and I wanted to go there.”
Onu loved the idea of being not only a starter, but a leader at the back of CU’s defense.
“There’s not a lot of experience back there, not a lot of people that have played a lot of snaps or started a lot of games and I fortunately have,” he said. “So, more than anything it’s a leadership aspect. Playing against fast-paced teams, tempo-based teams, you need somebody to help people get lined up.”
Onu, from Sugarland, Texas, started 20 games during his three years at SMU. He led the Mustangs in tackles (105) in 2017, despite playing with a sports hernia that required surgery after that season. Last year, he started seven games and finished with 59 tackles and an interception.
Although he played a lot for the Mustangs, Onu had to work his way back up the depth chart after surgery and said he never felt connected last year with a new coaching staff, led by Sonny Dykes.
“A new coaching staff comes in and you want your guys,” Onu said. “I’m a mature person and understand where they were coming from, but I lost that family feeling, that sense of being welcome, that belonging. I went to see if I could find that feeling again for my final season.”
Onu said he felt that feeling in Boulder immediately during his visit two weeks ago. It certainly helps that Onu fills a need for the Buffs, but he also feels he fits in with a roster that includes several Texas players. Among them is running back Alex Fontenot, Onu’s teammate at George Ranch High School.
“We were friends because we grew up in the same area,” Onu said. “I’m sure we’ll get a lot closer through this process.”
To be a graduate transfer and play this fall, however, Onu has to actually graduate from SMU and he’s working feverishly to get that done. Between spring and this summer, he’s taken 31 credit hours. He said he should finish at the end of this month. It’s been a challenge, he said, but well worth it, as he’ll be able to focus mainly on football when he gets to Boulder.
“I’m excited to put more time into football and film review and all that other kind of good stuff that I really couldn’t do at SMU because of class demands,” said Onu, who will enroll in graduate courses at CU.
On the field, Onu said the CU defense is fairly similar to what he ran at SMU, but “much more complex.” CU’s defense has more adjustments off of each play call, he said, and it’ll take some time to learn new terminology.
Having lived his entire life in Texas, Onu joked, “I’ve experienced pretty much one temperature, so we’ll see how this goes.”
He’s happy to handle a few snowflakes, frigid days and on-field adjustments this season, however, to play in the Pac-12 and help the Buffs.
“I’m excited to get into a different defense and start from scratch and learn my way in and work my way in,” he said.