MV’s Ivan Niyomugabo making strides at UNH

  • Ivan Niyomugabo (12) moves in the pocket during the UNH football Blue-White scrimmage at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Tuesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Quarterback Ivan Niyomugabo (12), formerly of Merrimack Valley, looks downfield during the UNH football Blue-White scrimmage at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Tuesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, August 26, 2017

DURHAM – All he knew at Merrimack Valley was starting, and starring. He was a Division II Honorable Mention quarterback as a freshman and sophomore, and a D-II First Team pick as a junior after leading MV to its first playoff appearance in school history in 2013.

His senior season was cut short by injury, but Ivan Niyomugabo had already shown enough to become the first Merrimack Valley grad to play D-I college football. He had options when it came to colleges, but in the end he wanted to stay close to home, play for a winner and be in a system where quarterbacks can shine, so the University of New Hampshire was the obvious choice.

Niyomugabo knew nothing would be handed to him at UNH. He knew the transition from D-II New Hampshire high school football to top-level Football Championship Subdivision college ball was going to be a big one. He knew there were other talented quarterbacks at UNH, like Trevor Knight, the former Nashua South star and New Hampshire Player of the Year who is a year ahead of him.

Niyomugabo knew the starting and starring wouldn’t happen right away at college, but in many ways he’s still the same person he was at MV. He still works hard, still loves the sport, still strives to improve every day.

The effort is finally yielding some tangible dividends for Niyomugabo, now a sophomore. The kid from Penacook was listed as the No. 2 quarterback (behind Knight) on UNH’s preseason depth chart. It remains to be seen if he will be in that role when UNH opens the season Thursday night against rival Maine, but there’s no doubt Niyomugabo has made strides during his time in Durham.

“Ivan is getting better all the time,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said after Tuesday’s scrimmage. “He’s really doing a great job in his option reads. He took off early in practice and today he had a pretty good day, I was happy with him. He’s got some work to do, as they all do, in understanding how we do it, but he’s made some progressions. He’s progressed an awful lot since last spring.”

Niyomugabo always had the raw tools – great arm strength, quickness and speed. What’s finally clicked for him this summer is the mental side of the game. Don’t misunderstand, Niyomugabo is smart and possessed a complete understanding of the high school game. But the mental demands in college are at a different level, especially at a place like UNH with its deep playbook that asks so much of quarterbacks in terms of decision making and execution in both the passing and running game.

“I’m getting to the age now where I know the playbook better, so I’m just getting more comfortable,” Niyomugabo said. “And I noticed as this camp went on it was easier to get more comfortable in the pocket and actually think about the little things and not really having to think about the plays. So I think there has been a lot of growing mentally.”

He may have noticed the changes this summer, but he knows they only came about after a couple years of diligent work. He put in his time in the weight room and practice fields during the offseason, and he picked the brains of older quarterbacks in the program like Sean Goldrich and Adam Riese.

“I took things from them that they used to get better mentally and physically, and I feel like I’m taking that to the next level this camp,” Niyomugabo said. “And knowing that I’m going into my sophomore year, but my third year in the program, I know it’s time to grow up and be an adult in the program. That’s the biggest goal right now.”

Offensive coordinator Ryan Carty, who played quarterback at Delaware, has certainly noticed Niyomugabo’s growth.

“Ivan’s done a great job so far,” Carty told unhwildcats.com earlier this month. “Ivan has probably had his best set of nine practices since he’s been here, including fall camps he’s been in and spring camps he’s been in. He’s really done a nice job with his mechanics, shortening his motion a little bit, being a little bit smoother with that and just kind of making quicker reads. He’s done a nice job. I’m really encouraged by what I see from him.”

The coaches aren’t the only ones who can see Niyomugabo’s improvement. His teammates see it, too.

“Ivan’s been doing great,” said junior receiver Neil O’Connor, who led the Wildcats in receiving yards last year (854) and was a Preseason All-Conference pick this year. “He’s been putting balls on people, making the right reads and doing a really good job running the ball, too … We’re definitely confident with Ivan back there. He’s just playing really well this camp.”

Redshirt freshman Christian Lupoli, who is from the same Connecticut high school as Goldrich, is pushing Niyomugabo for the backup job. Same goes for redshirt freshman Will Pollard, the former Kennett High quarterback who has impressed this summer at UNH. But an injury did slow Lupoli’s progress during camp and Niyomugabo has a year of experience over both Lupoli and Pollard.

Knight was the starter last year as a sophomore and the job is clearly his this season. But quarterbacks are asked to run the ball in UNH’s spread offense, which means injuries can, and do, happen. Last year’s backup, Riese, played in 11 of New Hampshire’s 13 games, including one start. So Niyomugabo could see some important minutes this year.

“Last season Riese went in there multiple times and won games. You’ve just got to be mentally ready to play,” Niyomugabo said. “The season is about to start, so you’ve got to start preparing for it, not only me, but the other quarterbacks are right there fighting, too. We’ve got to be ready to go to work no matter what happens.”

Yep, that’s the same kid everyone at Merrimack Valley knew for four years – ready to go to work no matter what.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)