His first name means “man of destiny.”
And even though everybody else told him he was too small to play major college football, Nantambu-Akil Fentress never stopped believing his destiny included being a Miami Hurricane.
“The story of Nantambu is nothing any of us could have predicted,” said Lemanski Hall, a retired nine-year NFL veteran linebacker who coached Fentress at Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tennessee.
“When I saw the video of him running down the field and making a tackle as a freshman on special teams, I just started crying because I love his story,” Hall continued. “I love the underdog.”
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Once an undersized 5-9, 185-pound freshman walk-on whose long black dreadlocks hanging freely from his helmet helped distinguish him from most of his teammates, Fentress has become more than just a feel-good story to root for since his arrival in Coral Gables in 2011.
He has earned himself scholarships two years in a row and become a leader on special teams, and he has become much more involved on defense in camp over the past month. He has even sported a coveted black jersey while splitting time at both weakside linebacker and safety — even though he has grown maybe half an inch and added only 10 pounds to his frame.
“I like to round up, so I’m like 5-10 now,” Fentress said with a smile. “I’d like to get to 200 when the season starts.”
Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said Fentress “is smart, can blitz and cover.” He also said he’s more in the mix for playing time at safety, but that “he can be an emergency guy at linebacker if he had to because he can do it.”
“He’s got the ability to get in there on the nickel package, too, which gives you almost a sixth defensive back look at times,” D’Onofrio said.
Cornerback Tracy Howard said the team calls Fentress “Mr. Perfect” “because he’s more than just a good football player.” Fentress is an excellent student, a biology major with aspirations to become a doctor. He’s also minoring in Spanish so he can eventually use the second language to work in Latin America.
He sings, too. Hall said Fentress was in the band in high school and can play different instruments. Last year at the Russell Athletic Bowl, Fentress, fullback Walter Tucker and linebacker Jimmy Gaines sang a rendition of Stand By Me during a luncheon in front of both Miami and Louisville players.
“All jokes aside, he’s a very rare, all-around football player,” Howard said. “Probably one of the hardest workers on the team by far. He rarely makes mental errors, if ever. He’s very physical. He’s rangy. He gets sideline to sideline. He has a lot of football speed. You see him and Dallas [Crawford] going down on kickoff — hair waving around everywhere — and they’re just maniacs.”
Crawford, who came to Miami on scholarship the same day Fentress arrived as a walk-on, said coaches have confused him and Fentress on game film many times but that he hardly minds. He said Fentress is “one of the best dudes” he knows.
“He doesn’t even curse,” Crawford said. “That’s how perfect he is.”
Under the radar
Coming out of high school, the only schools interested in Fentress were FCS schools and some Ivy League programs. His friends and family, Hall said, were pushing him to go to an Ivy League school. But his heart, Fentress said, was always with the Hurricanes. So how does a kid from Nashville fall in love with UM?
“I saw them win the championship when I was like 6 or 7 [years old] back in ’01,” Fentress said. “I just always loved the swag they had, and I needed to be a part of that.”
Even though his body has hardly grown, his role on the team has been expanding. Over his first three seasons (he played 13 of his 29 games last season), Fentress has collected 28 tackles (nearly all on special teams), a pass breakup and a forced fumble while wearing three different jersey numbers (40, 57 and now 28).
Hall said a big group of former players, coaches and fans from Ensworth are planning to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive north from Nashville to Louisville to cheer for Fentress in Monday night’s season opener.
Even though it is unlikely Fentress will start for Miami at safety, he will be on the field more on defense than he has in the past. It’s something he has earned, D’Onofrio said. It’s also something only Fentress envisioned, Hall said.
“This kid has done it all with heart,” Hall said. “All heart.”