A defender who grew up watching Canadian football leads UMaine in sacks

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University of Maine defenseman Justin Sambu grew up watching Canadian football in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

Sambu said he prefers American football for one main reason: He doesn’t like having to field a yard from the line of scrimmage like Canadian football does. Instead, in American football, the distance is approximately 11 inches.

“I like to be close,” said Sambu, who enjoys fighting in the trenches and has shown his skill there this season, leading the team in 3.5 sacks and three in quarterback rushes.

He was involved in 17 duels.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Sambu is UMaine’s most versatile defender. He can stand up at the end, tackle or nose protection.

“He was really the guy who did the most on the defensive line,” said UMaine head coach Jordan Stevens. “He’s a smart player and his athleticism really stands out. It can bend and change direction.”

Mike Gerace of the UMaine Graduate Student Center said Sambu changed his body and made himself more of a fast guy.

“But he’s also very strong, which gives him an advantage. And because he can play anywhere, the other teams have to take care of him. He really grew into the role,” Gerace said.

Sambu had the opportunity to play American football growing up because his Canadian coaches took his teams to the States to play, including a game against Ohio’s second-place team, Cleveland’s St. Ignatius.

“We had to learn and get used to the whole American football thing in a week,” Sambu said.

Canadian football and American football have different rules.

Canadian fields are longer and wider. You have three downs to move the ball 10 yards to make a first down in Canadian football, compared to four downs in American football. Several players in Canadian football’s offensive backfield can move and move forward before the snap, while in American football only one can move before the snap and they cannot move forward.

Sambu had always been a defensive end but had to learn tackle position when he got to UMaine.

“That was completely new for me. I never thought of playing indoors. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m gaining a lot of experience and I’m excited to see what comes of it,” he said.

Though Calgary is 3,994 miles from Orono, Sambu said the love he got from the coaches when he visited sold him to UMaine. He admitted his parents were surprised their son decided to come all the way to UMaine, but they have visited the campus and love it.

The defenseman was a redshirt in 2018 and appeared in five games in 2019. He played in all four spring games with five tackles during the COVID-19-shortened season two springs ago before appearing in nine of UMaine’s 11 games last fall, counting 21 tackles to go with a fumbling recovery.

“He means a lot to our team,” said senior quarterback Joe Fagnano. “He’s doing a really good job stopping the run and being a pass rusher for us at the end and inside. He’s done well so far and I’m excited to see what else he does this year.”

The Black Bears, after losing their first four games, have won their last two and are now 2-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association ahead of a 3:30 p.m. Saturday game at Stony Brook (0-6, 0-4) .

UMaine’s revived defense held Monmouth’s prolific running attack to just 112 yards in a 38-28 win last Saturday. The Hawks came into play averaging 246 yards per game.

“I think it’s great how we work together. It shows on the practice field and in games. We work hard every day. We have to keep moving forward,” said Sambu, a lifelong fan of the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.

His goal is the same as that of the team: keep getting better.

“I feel good where I am, but there is always room for improvement.”

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