All summer, the Michigan defense got a lot of hype — most of it highlighting the veteran line and secondary.
But when the Wolverines took the field against Utah last Saturday, it was the leader of the unheralded linebacker corps — redshirt sophomore Obi Ezeh — who made the biggest impact.
Ezeh recorded a career-high 15 tackles and had an interception early in the third quarter, which sparked the improved defensive effort in the second half.
For his performance, Ezeh was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez took notice, too, naming Ezeh one of Michigan’s players of the game along with defensive lineman Will Johnson.
“Obi is pretty solid, and that’s what we’ve seen in practice every day out of him and Will,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “They seem to be pretty consistent in practice, and they held that through for the game.”
Ezeh said it was hard to be excited by the accolades because the team lost. But it’s hard to ignore how far the Grand Rapids native has come in just one year.
“I kind of got thrown into the fire a little bit last year, but I think that allowed me to make greater strides,” Ezeh said last week. “That’s how you learn. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re under a lot of stress. I feel like that allowed me to handle this leadership role a lot better, knowing what I went through.”
After redshirting his first year, Ezeh played in all 13 games last season, starting 10 of them and recording 68 tackles and two sacks. He improved over the course of the season, but upon further review, Ezeh saw plenty of room to grow.
“Going back and watching a lot of the film, I would just be real slow triggering,” Ezeh said. “It all comes down to me thinking too much.”
Ezeh who mainly played running back in high school, didn’t garner much attention from recruiting services. When Ezeh came to Michigan he moved to linebacker — not exactly an easy transition.
He credits former Michigan linebackers Shawn Crable and Chris Graham with helping him develop at linebacker and putting him in position to become a leader in the middle of the defense this season.
But it’s another former No. 45 for Michigan, linebacker David Harris, now on the New York Jets, who Ezeh tries to emulate every time he steps on the field.
“That’s the guy to be right now,” Ezeh said. “So every day when I go to practice or when I see pictures of him on the wall I just think to myself, ‘that’s the guy I’m trying to be.’ “
Now Ezeh is trying to set an example for the rest of the Michigan defense.
“He’s real vocal,” said sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren, Ezeh’s roommate. “Last year me and him, being first year starters, we were just trying to get a feel for the game. But now Obi’s really stepped up into a real vocal leader for the defense.”
Ezeh’s message to the less experienced linebackers on the team, including Austin Panter, Marell Evans and Jonas Mouton, is to be persistent.
“Just cover your ears and worry about playing football,” Ezeh said, summarizing his ethos to reporters. “People are going to be saying things in the media. People are going to be saying things on campus. You just kind of got to ignore everything and just do what you got to do to be a better football player.”
It’s a message steeped in experience for Ezeh. He felt the heat last year when things weren’t going Michigan’s way.
But if he chose to listen to what’s being said about him now, the negativity would be hard to find.