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Rookie linebacker Acho stepping up for Cardinals

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)

As smart as he is - and he is very smart - Sam Acho says he felt ''overwhelmed'' when he first saw the size of the Arizona Cardinals' playbook.

Not only was he going to have to study a new defense cover to cover, he was going to have to learn a new position, moving from the defensive end position he played at Texas to outside linebacker in the NFL.

Eleven games into his rookie season, Acho has taken over the starting job from injured Joey Porter and flourished. In last Sunday's 23-20 win at St. Louis, Acho had two sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He is tied with Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell for the team lead with five sacks, even though he has started only the last five games.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said bringing Acho along slowly earlier this season has led to his recent success.

''Just like a lot of these guys, he made a lot of mistakes early,'' Whisenhunt said. ''When you do that, you have a tendency to lose your confidence. Sam wasn't thrown into the fire where he had to do it in games, so he got a chance to come along the right way. When he got his opportunity, he was very confident.

''That's probably the best thing that Sam does right now, he doesn't make mistakes. He uses his ability when he doesn't make mistakes to make those plays.''

Since his mid-teens, Acho has had an annual lesson in perspective. His parents, both born in Nigeria, return there every year on a medical mission, and Acho accompanies them.

''Every time I go there and I see the poverty and I see the needs, I realize how blessed I am,'' he said. ''I really can't complain about anything whatsoever.''

A staunch Christian, he credits his parents for giving him the right attitude.

''My upbringing helps me tremendously,'' Acho said. ''My parents always taught me I have to work for everything I get, and also to stay humble. All the Proverbs talk about the Lord, he lifts up the humble and takes down the proud. Anyways, I'm just trying to stay humble and keep on working.''

At Texas, Acho earned a double bachelor's degree in business administration/marketing from the McCombs School of Business Honors Program. He had a 3.6 GPA and last year was named one of the Sporting News' 20 smartest athletes. Only four other college athletes made the list. He also won the William V. Campbell Trophy, the so-called academic Heisman, for ''combined academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership.''

But his prospects as a pro were uncertain. At 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, he was too small to be a defensive end, and it wasn't clear how he would do dropping into pass coverage. As a result, he wasn't drafted until the fourth round, the 103rd player chosen overall.

Acho remains a work in progress. In spite of his coach's statement about him not making mistakes, Acho cited a couple of plays late against St. Louis when he rushed the passer instead of dropping into coverage, as he was supposed to do.

''Playing defensive end, you've got basic plays and basic coverages,'' Acho said, ''but playing linebacker, you've got to drop back into coverage. You've got to rush the passer. You've got to do different assignments. It's been a learning experience, but it's been a lot of fun.''

He credits veteran teammates - Adrian Wilson, Porter, Clark Haggans and Vonnie Holliday - for helping him.

Next up are the Dallas Cowboys, a game that must carry a bit of extra meaning. After all, Acho grew up in Dallas.

''Growing up I was a Cowboys fan,'' he said, ''until I wised up.''

Tagged: Cardinals, Sam Acho

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