Azeez Ojulari ready to wreak havoc for Giants

Posted on

It continues to be shown, at the start of every new season: An endless loop of Azeez Ojulari running, running, running, at first seemingly as a nice-try effort, until the shocking reality breaks through the screen.

Holy smokes, Azeez has a shot to get him.

It was the final play of the first half and Blessed Trinity, a defending Georgia state championship team, was about to score on Marietta, Ojulari’s team. Elijah Green, a running back who later accepted an offer to play at North Carolina, broke free at midfield and was on his way to what looked like an inevitable 50-yard touchdown. Ojulari, sent in to rush the quarterback with the expectation of a pass play, was headed the wrong way. A full 20 yards behind the ball, he pivoted and gave chase, but no one had any real hopes.

“And Azeez caught him on the last play of the half at like the 5-yard line and tackled him, and we ended up winning the game by two points,’’ Richard Morgan, Marietta’s head coach, told The Post. “If Azeez doesn’t make that play, we don’t end up winning.’’

That was during the 2017 season. The clip of that play — Ojulari dragging down a future Division I running back, the son of former Jets safety Victor Green — is how Morgan welcomes in every new season, indoctrinating a fresh crop of Blue Devils by showing them the Ojulari Overtaking.

“To remind them,’’ Morgan said, “ ‘This is how we want you to play.’ ’’

Azeez Ojulari
Azeez Ojulari
Bill Kostroun

How cool is that? Cooler than putting together a highlight-film of Ojulari’s sacks and disruptive defensive plays.

“Effort is a big part of the game,’’ Ojulari said. “Effort rewards you. You never betray your effort. You always keep that first, for sure.

“I feel like everyone can make a highlight. But showing something that’s different, showing how someone is different and showing them how much effort is important, you’re rewarded for effort.’’

Getting singled out as an example of the right way to do it has a way of happening to Ojulari. It is far too early in the relationship to determine how Giants head coach Joe Judge will come to view his 2021 second-round draft pick. If what’s past is prologue, the Giants will be grateful that after they traded down in the second round of the draft, from No. 42 to No. 50, Ojulari was there, waiting for them to call his name.

“A freaking steal,’’ Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for Ourlads Scouting Services, said of Ojulari lasting until No. 50.

Ojulari’s 2020 season at Georgia thrust him into first-round consideration. He led the Bulldogs with 35 quarterback pressures, 11 more than any teammate. He led the powerhouse Southeastern Conference in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (12.5). Continuing his penchant for rising to the occasion, he came up with a sack on Mississippi State’s final offensive play last Nov. 21, preserving a 31-24 Georgia victory. He closed out his college career with three-sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in a personal demolition of Cincinnati to earn Defensive Most Valuable Player honors for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

“The thing that separated Azeez from others was he’s pro-ready with his hands,’’ said Chris Pettit, the Giants’ director of college scouting. “He’s instinctive. The guy has the ability to make big plays in big spots. He’s ultra-competitive. He has good instincts.’’

So far, Ojulari is making a strong impression with the Giants. Defensive captain and inside linebacker Blake Martinez called the rookie lining up next to him “a freaky-looking player.’’ Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said Ojulari, like all rookies, needs to learn how to play with a lower pad level, but is thrilled he was on the board for the Giants.

Many standout linemen and linebackers can get away with playing too high in college, and must learn to get lower for better balance and stronger technique once they face stiffer competition in the NFL.

“I was excited to see him there, to be honest with you,’’ Graham said.

What the Giants cannot know just yet, what resides deeper, under the surface, is the way Ojulari sends his winning traits coursing through the bloodstream of a program.

“High character and toughness,’’ Georgia head coach Kirby Smart told The Post of Ojulari’s best traits. “I think when you start trying to build a defense — whether you’re in the NFL, college or high school — it starts with what kind of toughness do you have? When you rank tough players, Azeez is really high. He strikes well with contact. He never shies away. He doesn’t complain when you go full pads — he wants every part of it.’’

Azeez Ojulari celebrates a sack with Georgia.
Azeez Ojulari celebrates a sack with Georgia.

Morgan, after a highly successful run at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., was hired in 2016 to turn around the Marietta football program, which had not won a state title since 1967. He arrived that March and immediately began studying the roster, trying to glean anything he could as to what building block he would place as a foundation piece.

He studied the players he inherited and researched the off-the-field credentials and personalities of the youngsters he was tasked with guiding. He decided to reach out to a 16-year-old named Azeez Ojulari.

Morgan: “I went to Azeez and told him, ‘I’ve observed you, I’ve watched, and you’re going to be the face of the program. You’re going to be the guy we want everyone to emulate and be like, we want you to be the guy that sets the tone for the entire program.’ ”

Why him?

“He just had everything,’’ Morgan said. “He had the intangibles. When I came here, I’m trying to look around and figure out, who has it all? Here’s a kid, he gave everything he had in the weight room, his teachers loved him, the kids flocked to him. Everybody knew him and looked up to him. He interacted well with everybody in the school.

“Everything you saw about the kid, just that infectious smile and that work ethic, after about a month I was like, ‘That’s the guy.’ ’’

This is heady stuff for anyone, especially a high school sophomore, suddenly asked to accept a mantle of leadership he never before wore.

Azeez Ojulari flashes a peace sign at Giants mini camp.
Azeez Ojulari flashes a peace sign at Giants minicamp.

“I trusted him from his résumé, and I believed and trusted when he said that, I was like, ‘Yeah, if sees it in me, I definitely can make it happen, for sure,’ ” Ojulari said. “It was just great.’’

Morgan told Ojulari he reminded him of Josh Sweat, a defensive end he coached at Oscar Smith who went on to Florida State and now plays for the Eagles.

Ojulari was already a good player, but not a special one. He did not yet have a single college offer. Following his junior year, he had 20, then 30 — including Auburn, Clemson, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.

As a senior, Ojulari had 118 tackles (31 for loss) and 11 sacks as Marietta advanced to the GHSA 7A state playoffs, reaching the quarterfinals. During the postseason run, the Blue Devils experienced a spate of injuries on their offensive line. Desperate, Morgan asked Ojulari to fill in. Despite having never before played the position, Ojulari lined up at offensive tackle, switching from his No. 8 jersey to No. 51.

His younger brother, B.J., lined up at the other tackle spot, but at least he actually played both ways, offensive line and defensive end — he is now a defensive end at LSU. This was all-new to Azeez.

“At the time, I was just the best to put in that position to help the team,’’ Ojulari said. “We needed it badly. I did it, unselfishly.’’

The job: Protect the quarterback, Harrison Bailey, who is currently at Tennessee.

“I was strong, so nobody was getting around me. I get my hands on ’em it was over with,’’ Ojulari said, claiming he did not allow any sacks during the playoff run.

“You go check the film all you want, no sacks,’’ he said, laughing. “I think I did have a holding penalty. But the quarterback was clean, for sure. He knew he was good when I’m back there at O-line. He knows he’s straight.’’

A novice, 230-pound offensive tackle is not the standard course of operation, but it worked.

“Did a great job for us,’’ Morgan said. “He’s gonna do what you tell him to do, he’s gonna block the right guy and we were able to go on a nice playoff run, until he got hurt.’’

In the playoffs, Ojulari went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament but, thanks to a swift recovery from knee surgery, he was able to get in a few games in his first year at Georgia. Smart saw in Ojulari what Morgan saw in him. Ojulari was the first freshman to be named a game captain by Smart when he bestowed that honor on him against Tennessee.

“He’s a high character player off the field,’’ Smart said. “He is going to be an asset in the Giants’ locker room. He makes your whole team better, but he’s also very talented.”

It is the “asset in the Giants’ locker room’’ prediction that gets Ojulari geeked. It is what Morgan saw in him at Marietta. It is what Smart got from him at Georgia.

“Being there for my teammates, no matter what it is,’’ Ojulari said. “I’m just always going to be there, somebody you can count on and go to about anything. I’m cool with everyone, I’m a very chill, outgoing guy.’’

At the very least, Ojulari, with the Giants, will move in immediately on passing downs. Some scouts viewed him as the best natural pass rusher in the entire draft. If he shows he can handle an expanded role, it would not be shocking at all if he emerged, rather quickly, as a starting outside linebacker.

Those who have already been down the road with Ojulari are certain the combination of on-field and off-the-field will lead to a rewarding relationship for the Giants and this particular player.

“He’s just somebody you want to be around,’’ Morgan said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say anything negative around him. That’s important. Sometimes they forget what you say or what you do but people never forget how you make ’em feel. Azeez makes everyone feel special, that’s why he’s a great teammate.’’

And, if needed, he’ll chase down that guy for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *