University of Maine defensive lineman Justin Sambu lines up in a game against Colgate on Sept. 10, 2022, in Orono, Maine. Credit: Seth Poplaski / UMaine Athletics

University of Maine defensive lineman Justin Sambu grew up playing Canadian football in his native Calgary, Alberta.

Sambu said he prefers American football for one primary reason: He doesn’t like having to line up a yard from the line of scrimmage like they have to in Canadian football. Instead, the distance is roughly 11 inches in American football.

“I like to be right in tight,” explained Sambu, who enjoys the battles in the trenches and has exhibited his prowess in there this season by leading the team in sacks with 3.5 and in quarterback hurries with three.

He has been involved in 17 tackles.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Sambu is UMaine’s most versatile defensive lineman.  He can line up at end, tackle or nose guard.

“He has really been the guy who has done the most on the defensive line,” said UMaine head coach Jordan Stevens. “He is a smart player and his athleticism really stands out. He can bend and change directions.”

UMaine graduate student center Mike Gerace said Sambu transformed his body and made himself more of a speed guy.

“But he is also very strong, which gives him an advantage. And because he can play anywhere, the other teams have to worry about him. He has really grown into that role,” Gerace said.

Sambu got the opportunity to play American football growing up because his Canadian coaches would bring his teams to the states to play, including a game against Ohio’s second-ranked team, St. Ignatius from Cleveland.

“We had to learn the whole American football thing in a week and get used to it,” Sambu said.

Canadian football and American football have different rules.

Canadian fields are longer and wider. You have three downs to move the ball 10 yards to pick up a first down in Canadian football, compared with four downs in American football. Several players in the offensive backfield in Canadian football can go in motion and go forward before the snap while only one can go in motion before the snap in American football, and they can’t go forward.

Sambu had always been a defensive end but had to learn the tackle position when he arrived at UMaine.

“It was brand new to me. I never thought about playing inside. I haven’t mastered it yet but I’m getting a lot of experience and I’m excited to see what comes with it,” he said.

Even though Calgary is 3,994 miles from Orono, Sambu said the love he got from the coaches on his visit sold him on UMaine. He admitted his parents were surprised that their son decided to come all the way to UMaine but they have visited campus and love it.

The defensive lineman was a redshirt in 2018 and appeared in five games in 2019. He played in all four spring games with five tackles during the COVID-19-shortened season two springs ago before appearing in nine of UMaine’s 11 games last fall and tallying 21 tackles to go with a fumble recovery.

“He means a lot to our team,” said senior quarterback Joe Fagnano. “He does a real nice job stopping the run and being a pass rusher for us off the end and in the interior. He has done well so far and I’m excited to see what else he does this year.”

The Black Bears, after losing their first four games, have won their last two and are now 2-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association entering a Saturday game at 3:30 p.m. at Stony Brook (0-6, 0-4).

UMaine’s resurgent defense held Monmouth’s prolific running attack to just 112 yards last Saturday in a 38-28 win. The Hawks entered the game averaging 246 yards per game.

“I love how we’re working together. It shows on the practice field and in games. We’re working hard every single day. We need to keep moving forward,” said Sambu, a lifetime fan of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders.

His goal is the same as the team’s: keep getting better.

“I feel good where I’m at but there is always room for improvement.”