The massive football player wearing a gray hoodie on a 90-degree Tuesday was asked after practice if he felt warm — or maybe even cold.
His response — “I don’t speak English” — poured out in his native Igbo amid confused looks and random giggles.
Miami Hurricane offensive lineman Sunny Odogwu broke into a smile nearly as wide as his 322-pound girth.
“I’m just messin’ with you,’’ said the 6-8 Nigerian, who “never slept on a bed” — sharing a “a 10x10” sleeping space with three brothers, three sisters and four other family members in his village of Ezeagu — until he came to the United States after his father died in 2009.
Today, the redshirt sophomore right tackle has a new family with dozens of brothers. He mentioned them several times Tuesday.
“Fun, very fun,” Odogwu, 22, said about his football education. “We’re working as a team to be a great family. We … listen to each other and listen to the coaches and pick out the little things because the little things matter the most. We try to communicate as hard as we can as a team and family — actually, family most because we’re so close together now it’s unreal.”
Odogwu is battling for the starting spot on an offensive line that lost left tackle Ereck Flowers to the New York Giants in the first round of the NFL Draft, left guard Jon Feliciano to the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round and center Shane McDermott as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.
Odogwu played in nine games in 2014 as a reserve, but was still learning the sport, not to mention the playbook. He was raw and undisciplined and drew flags not only for mistakes but for occasionally losing his temper.
Last year, Odogwu said he told Trevor Darling, then a newcomer and now a 6-5, 318-pound sophomore rotating at left tackle with 6-6, 315-pound Kc McDermott, ‘Please don’t be like me. Don’t get overwhelmed. Just calm down and don’t think too much.’ ”
Nick Linder, the 6-3, 300-pound sophomore and younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguar and former Canes lineman Brandon Linder, is the first-team center.
Redshirt junior Danny Isidora, 6-4 and 322 pounds, is at right guard, with 6-5, 310-pound junior Alex Gall at left guard.
“That’s life,” Odogwu said of the loss of such substantial experience and talent on the line. “We have great players, too. Like in a family, if the dad dies, someone will have to pick up to be the dad. So you just have to … listen to the coaches and be a good family and know that we have some chip [on] our shoulder.”
Coach Al Golden, preparing his players for the first preseason scrimmage Thursday night under the new lights at Greentree Field, said Odogwu’s “FBI,” otherwise known as football intelligence, has improved, along with his strength.
Golden called the offensive line “the most exciting” unit on the team at this point. “The biggest thing for me is the cohesion of the unit,” the coach said. “It’s a team that is getting challenged every day, so it’s going to have a lot to prove Thursday.”
Odogwu, who grew up without electricity and water, first came to the United States at age 16, when he was discovered for his basketball prowess in Nigeria. He played at Victory Christian Academy in Conyers, Georgia, then left for well-known Huntington Prep in West Virginia.
He played football for the first time as a senior at Baltimore St. Frances Academy.
Odogwu said Tuesday that he is the same Sunny — a boisterous, warm, emotional man — that he was when he arrived in the States.
“That will never change,” Odogwu said. “That’s who I am, that’s who God made me and I appreciate that. But as a player I just put my head down and go to work every day knowing that the coaches have my best interest and the team’s best interest at heart.
“… We are just one pile of love brothers in one bag.”