Five years ago, David Ojabo hadn’t played a single snap of organized football.
Now a junior edge rusher for the Michigan football team, Ojabo’s second-quarter strip sack emerged as the turning point in the seventh-ranked Wolverines’ 29-7 win over Indiana on Saturday night. After Michigan’s offense struggled to get on the board in the opening quarter, Ojabo’s big play set the Wolverines up just outside the red zone. From there, it took just four plays for the offense to turn a 3-0 lead into a double-digit advantage.
It’s not the first time Ojabo has single-handedly changed a game this season. He’s up to 23 tackles in 2021, including eight sacks. Seven of those sacks have come in Michigan’s last five games — a sign that Ojabo’s pass-rush moves have taken a massive stride forward.
The Wolverines have arguably the nation’s best edge duo in Ojabo and senior Aidan Hutchinson. The latter is in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, but it’s the former who leads Michigan — and the Big Ten — in sacks this season.
“Ojabo, he’s crazy. He can come off the edge, can’t run by him, tackle, force fumbles,” senior defensive back D.J. Turner said. “He does it all, for real. I don’t know anyone that I’ve seen personally grow as fast as he did, but he’s been doing this.”
A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, Ojabo grew up playing soccer and basketball before moving to America and attending prep school at Blair Academy in New Jersey. There, he became the understudy of star linebacker Odafe Oweh. A year older than Ojabo, Oweh ultimately played college football at Penn State before the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Now, Ojabo is the one whose name is popping up in the first round of NFL mock drafts. On Saturday night, he showed why. In addition to his game-changing strip sack, Ojabo was credited with two quarterback hurries and another tackle. When he wasn’t rushing the quarterback, he disguised his designed coverages in order to make impact plays at the line of scrimmage.
“David Ojabo just keeps getting better and better,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s doing a great job. … He’s someone you really have to account for. His ability to really rush the passer, and also adding the other parts of his game — he was in some drop (coverage) situations as well — doing good. That’s an issue.”
After entering this season a little-known commodity, Ojabo now finds himself towards the top of almost every opposing team’s scouting report. According to Harbaugh, that rapid ascension is a credit to his offseason work ethic and a special bond with Hutchinson. Similar to the way he learned from Oweh, Ojabo spent the offseason gleaning everything he could from the Wolverines’ returning All-Big Ten pass rusher.
From workouts to film sessions, Ojabo and Hutchinson worked together to understand their place in first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s new 3-4 scheme. Now, the dividends are showing up in the box score almost every Saturday.
“David Ojabo was in (Hutchinson’s) hip pocket every one of those workouts,” Harbaugh said last month. “That tells you how smart David Ojabo is. You can see him reaping the benefits right now.”
Nine games into this season, it appears Ojabo has established himself as next up in a long line of successful Michigan pass-rushers under Harbaugh. NFL Draft picks Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, Kwity Paye, Josh Uche, Mike Danna and Taco Charlton, among others, experienced stardom during their days as Wolverines. Hutchinson, too, is a consensus top-five 2022 NFL Draft prospect.
After a long road to Ann Arbor, Ojabo has joined that list.
“It was a whole build up of confidence from the coaches and all the work I’ve put in,” Ojabo said in October. “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.”
On Saturday night, the impact was once again apparent.