When David Ojabo began his football career, he found himself behind the eight-ball. Way, way behind the eight-ball.
Born in Nigeria, Ojabo’s family moved to Aberdeen, Scotland in 2007 when he was about seven years old. He grew up playing soccer and basketball and didn’t have much exposure to American football. That was until his junior year of high school, when he played alongside future first-round pick Odafe Oweh at Blair Academy — a prep school in New Jersey.
Known for his athleticism, Oweh racked up more than 25 football scholarship offers. He ultimately committed to Penn State, was selected 31st overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and now plays outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.
“I had seen his success,” Ojabo, now a junior edge rusher for the Michigan football team, said Tuesday. “In just one year of football he played, he got like 25 offers. I said, ‘Why not me?’
“So I played my one year and got 35.”
As they did for Oweh, coaches were obsessing over Ojabo’s athleticism during the 2019 recruiting cycle. Rutgers became the first to offer him a scholarship in the fall of 2017. He eventually chose the Wolverines over the likes of Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State. The untapped potential was too much to ignore, but it was no secret Ojabo would face a steep learning curve at the college level.
“Every day is a learning day,” Ojabo said. “I had to pick things up quick to be in the position I’m in right now. I mean, every day I’m still learning, for real. I’ve learned a ton, even just the basic rules of football. I feel like I’ve come a long way.”
Ojabo made his biggest strides at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He returned to Scotland in the spring for what he thought would be a three-week vacation, but once travel restrictions went into effect, the trip home turned into being stranded for three months. He was forced to complete his workouts over Zoom as his teammates began a #FreeOjabo movement on social media in July 2020.
The time Ojabo spent away from his teammates offered an opportunity to look inward. Going into his sophomore year at that point, he hadn’t seen the field at all. He made it his mission to change that.
“When I got stuck, I was like, ‘Wow, something from three weeks can turn into three months.’ You don’t know when it can be taken away from you,” Ojabo said. “I felt like I flipped that switch, like, when I get back, I’m trying to be on a do-or-die wave. Every day could be my last. … I applied that to the field as soon as I came back.”
The result was Ojabo’s emergence as a trendy breakout pick. At Big Ten Media Days this past summer, multiple Wolverines tabbed Ojabo as a player to watch in 2021.
Ready to take the next step, Ojabo has emerged as a key edge piece in first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s 3-4 scheme. Through three games this season, Ojabo has racked up five tackles and earned regular playing time. That includes his first career sack, which came in the fourth quarter of Michigan’s win over Washington. He also recorded a quarterback hurry in the Wolverines’ season-opener against Western Michigan and recovered a fumble against the Huskies a week later.
Now, in his third year with the program, Ojabo estimates he sees his family only about once per year. But because the time difference is just five hours, they’re able to stream Michigan’s games when they kick off at noon and 3:30 p.m. Night games are a bit harder, so Ojabo’s family woke up to the news of his sack and fumble recovery after the Washington game.
Now, Michigan and Ojabo are hoping that caliber of performance becomes a regular occurrence.
“It was a whole build up of confidence from the coaches and all the work I’ve put in,” Ojabo said. “Like, just getting comfortable in my own body and the whole new system. … As long as I know my assignment, if I go balls to the walls, that’s just confidence increasing and that translates directly to the field.”
Ojabo’s size and physicality coming off the edge complements star pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson well. Now that he has a sack under his belt, his confidence is at an all-time high.
With the Wolverines set to begin their Big Ten schedule this weekend, Ojabo can emerge as a major factor in how the 2021 season plays out.