As Andrew Mukuba waited to take the field for his first career start, Clemson’s safety took a minute to soak in the environment that came with more than 70,000 people packed inside Bank of America Stadium.
“It was crazy loud,” Mukuba said. “Never really been in an environment like that other than recruiting and going to games.”
Only once since 1973 had Clemson started two true freshmen in a season opener — Jeff Walls and James Farr in 1980 — but Mukuba and offensive lineman Marcus Tate added to the short list in the Tigers’ 10-3 loss to Georgia on Saturday, one in which the Tigers didn’t allow an offensive touchdown. With senior safety Nolan Turner nursing an injury, Mukuba got the start alongside junior Jalyn Phillips at the position, though defensive coordinator Brent Venables made it sound like Mukuba, who got plenty of first-team reps during the preseason, could be a mainstay even when the Tigers are at back at full strength on the back end of their defense.
“He would’ve started had Nolan been healthy,” Venables said. “Nolan would’ve been on the other side in all likelihood.”
Clemson’s updated depth chart, which was released Monday, was further confirmation. Mukuba was listed as the starting strong safety ahead of Lannden Zanders, who will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.
“It says we’ve got some good, young players,” Venables said. “Building some depth there at some critical positions, and guys stepped up.”
It’s taken less than a year for Mukuba to rise to the top of the depth chart after signing with Clemson in December and going through spring practice as an early enrollee. But that’s only scratching the surface of Mukuba’s journey.
Mukuba was born in Zimbabwe, and his parents are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a poverty-stricken area in central Africa ravaged by civil wars. “I would still see my dad around,” Mukuba said, but more often than not, he and his six siblings lived together in a one-parent household. Walking miles to retrieve clean water and going days without electricity weren’t uncommon.
“He’s easy to pull for,” Venables said.
When Mukuba was 9 years old, his family left for America “just trying to find a better life,” Mukuba said. The family settled in Austin, Texas. And at that time, rugby was the only sport resembling football that he was familiar with, but Mukuba began playing football in the sixth grade as a running back.
That’s because he was always faster than other children his age, which is when Mukuba said he realized football might be the sport for him long-term.
“I used to just run around people,” Mukuba said.
That changed, Mukuba said, when he got to Early College High School. He also figured out quickly that he liked delivering hits more than absorbing them, so he made the switch to defensive back.
“This is probably the only time you can hit somebody and not get in trouble for it,” Mukuba said. “That’s one thing I liked.”
Mukuba evolved into one of the top recruits in Texas by his senior season. Ranked a four-star prospect by ESPN and 247Sports, Mukuba was sought after by plenty of Power Five programs, including the one in Austin whose campus was located across the street from the hotel where his mother works.
Texas went hard after Mukuba, who said he talked to former Longhorns coach Tom Herman “a lot” during the recruiting process. Mukuba said he grew up going on field trips to Texas and attending games there, but that was mainly because it was in such close proximity rather than Mukuba being a fan of the Longhorns.
Texas and Clemson were among his finalists. Mukuba’s older brother, Vincent, who essentially served as an advisor for his young brother when it came to weighing the pros and cons of each school, was also impressed by what Clemson had to offer, which, in Venables’ opinion, didn’t hurt.
But Mukuba said he ultimately made the choice that he felt was best for him, which helped Clemson pluck a recruit out of the Longhorns’ backyard.
“At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, that’s how we got Andrew, because of his own familiarity and doing his own homework,” Venables said. “What a great fit. He’s looking for the right things and made of the right stuff in regards to his values. But he’s about his business.”
Learning the intricacies of Venables’ defense can sometimes be overwhelming for a first-year player, and Mukuba admitted he wasn’t playing as fast as he could in the spring because “I was still learning and I was still hesitant on a lot of things.”
Physical ability for the 6-foot, 185-pounder has never been much of a question, but Mukuba took it upon himself to flatten the learning curve by watching more film on his own time. And he didn’t do it alone.
He picked Turner’s brain during film sessions in order to get a better understanding not only of how Clemson’s defense operates but also how opposing offenses might try to operate against them. Mukuba said poring over that tape with the Tigers’ sixth-year safety has gone a long way in improving his comfort level within the defense.
“Just the little things like how the offense lines up, what to expect out of that formation and what’s coming your way,” Mukuba said. “I feel like stuff like that can really elevate your game. Stuff like that is really important because it’s going to put you in position to make a lot of plays.”
Mukuba looked anything but out of place Saturday night against the Bulldogs. He tallied eight tackles — third-most on the team — and broke up a pass as part of a defensive effort that limited Georgia to 256 total yards and 4.2 yards per play.
“For my first start, I would probably give myself like a B-minus,” Mukuba said. “There was some stuff that I kind of messed up on as far as alignments and coming in with the run fits and helping out.
“But going out there in a top-5 matchup and being able to do what I did on the positive side, that definitely helped my confidence.”
Keeping things in perspective has gotten easier for Mukuba considering how hard life used to be.
“Positive things happened. A couple of bad things happened,” Mukuba said. “It was a difficult process, but everything is coming together. There’s a lot of positive going on, and I just feel like we’re blessed as a family.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!