As the first half of Saturday’s 33-22 win over Eastern Michigan wound down, Michigan’s Obi Ezeh fielded a short kickoff and returned it 13 yards. A former high school running back and returner, Ezeh said in the post-game press conference that catching it posed little challenge.
But the Wolverines aren’t looking at him as a possible successor to Steve Breaston. Rather, they’ve needed Ezeh at middle linebacker.
And at that position, the redshirt freshman began the season a little less sure-handed.
Skilled but inexperienced, Ezeh struggled to adapt to his role in the defense for much of the team’s first five games. But last weekend, his ability finally began to shine through. Filling in for the injured John Thompson, Ezeh recorded nine tackles and forced a fumble.
“Obi is very talented and very athletic,” safety Brandent Englemon said. “Once he gets confidence as a leader and getting the defensive front set and things of that nature, he will bring a lot to the team.”
As the Wolverines’ middle linebacker, one of Ezeh’s biggest responsibilities – and also one of his biggest problems – has been calling out the defensive plays. At times, the Grand Rapids native has looked uncomfortable filling the leadership role.
Saturday, though, he seemed to gain confidence in his calls. And, perhaps more important, he’s recognized how integral that is to the defense.
“I’m happy with getting the defense lined up quick, because when I’m hesitant with my calls, then they’re hesitant, and it kind of shows,” Ezeh said.
And Ezeh knows this Michigan defense needs as few distractions as possible. After winning a position battle with Thompson this summer, Ezeh started in the Wolverines’ now-infamous loss to Appalachian State, his first-ever collegiate game.
A common sight in recent years, a spread offense embarrassed the Michigan defense. Mountaineer quarterback Armanti Edwards passed for 227 yards and rushed for 62 more.
Because of the spread formations, Ezeh often found himself guarding swift fourth and fifth wide receivers who easily outmatched him. He played just as poorly as many other Wolverines and later said he wasn’t “emotionally ready” for his first game.
Apparently, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr didn’t think so, either. He sat Ezeh in favor of Thompson the next two games.
Instead of sulking, Ezeh studied Thompson in both games and practice and tried to imitate the junior. And when Thompson sustained an injury prior to the Northwestern game, Ezeh got a shot at redemption.
He looked shaky making his calls during play early on against Northwestern, but he showed noticeable improvement as the game continued. Ezeh finished with four tackles and an interception, and against Eastern Michigan, he played even better.
Defensive coordinator Ron English said after the Northwestern game he gave Ezeh some simple advice: relax.
The young Wolverine has taken the message to heart.
“I just want to be more of a leader on the field, be more of a leader and just be able to have fun and play and not worry about ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ” Ezeh said.
And if keeps improving, he certainly won’t have to.