Northwestern’s fierce defensive front was arguably one of the biggest reasons for its success in 2012. Allowing just over 127 yards per game on the ground, the 'Cats ranked 21st in the nation and third in the Big Ten in run defense.
But Northwestern had trouble maintaining constant pressure on the quarterback. A big reason for this was the loss of ESPN.com four-star recruit and Under Armor High School All-American defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo to a shoulder injury.
Coming from Centerville, Ohio, Odenigbo was the only four-star recruit in Northwestern’s 2012 class. In fact, ESPN.com ranked the linebacker/defensive end hybrid as the No. 51 overall prospect in the nation.
One of four true freshmen to crack into Northwestern’s lineup, Odenigbo was poised to have a large impact pressuring the quarterback. After debuting against Vanderbilt in the Wildcats’ second game of the 2012 season, the freshman was sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury prior to a week three game against Boston College.
“[My injury] was very disappointing, but what coach [Pat] Fitz[gerald] told me was to respond to adversity,” Odenigbo said after practice Tuesday. The redshirt freshman pointed out the recovery from his injury has been ahead of schedule, which is why he’s able to practice this spring.
Odenigbo showed no signs of physical limitations Tuesday morning. The freshman, who has worn No. 7 since high school, was quick off the snap, giving offensive tackles Shane Mertz and Kenton Playko a lot of trouble on the edge. If holding were called during practices, Odenigbo would have drawn a flag or two. On two or three occasions Odenigbo had a clear shot at the quarterback, but practice protocol prevents hits on the QB.
“I’m still trying to figure out my role, but I see myself as more of a pass-rushing kind of guy because I’m a little undersized for my position,” Odenigbo said. While 220 lbs. might be a little light for a typical physical defensive lineman in the Big Ten, Odenigbo’s 4.62 40-yard-dash time is incredibly quick for an end. In fact, the Ohio native anchored his high school team to a third place finish in the 4 x 200 relay at the OHSAA State Track and Field Championship his senior year.
“This injury could be a blessing because I got a medical red shirt,” Odenigbo said. Four more years of Odenigbo should be enough to get any 'Cats fan excited.
Of course, Odenigbo has some room for improvement. When the defensive scheme calls for him to become the drop end on the weak side, No.7 shows a lack of awareness of receivers in his zone. On one occasion, Odenigbo failed to see crossing wideout Cameron Dickerson in the shallow flats. The receiver caught the ball and ran for about a 10 yard gain. Were it not for a couple busted plays, Odenigbo would have been responsible for a few more miscues.
“I’m still trying to pick up the defense because I’m kind of behind from my injury,” admitted Odenigbo regarding those lapses on defense during practice.
To be fair, Odenigbo never had to worry about pass coverage before coming to NU. With his size and strength in high school, the now 6’3” stud put his hand in the ground and attacked the backfield on probably every play.
While Northwestern is sure about one starting defensive end, senior Tyler Scott, the other side will be a good battle between Odenigbo and sophomore Dean Lowry after the departure of Quentin Williams this spring. Lowry backed up Scott last year, playing in all 13 games and earning Big Ten All-Freshman team honors.
Whether or not Odenigbo earns a starting role, expect the redshirt freshman to be used in third down and long situations to force opposing quarterbacks into making quick decisions.