Azeez Ojulari found himself in an unfamiliar spot after practice Thursday. He was standing in front of a bank of video cameras and audio recorders.
It was the first time the outside linebacker from Marietta High had been designated by Georgia coach Kirby Smart to represent the defense in media interviews. The fact that he was appointed for that duty as a redshirt freshman speaks volumes about the trust – and expectations – the coaching staff has for Ojulari.
“First one,” Ojulari confirmed of his post-practice interview assignment. “I was kind of nervous at first. But I’m here now, so let’s do it.”
Other than a nervous giggle that followed that first answer, Ojulari was all business after that.
And the Bulldogs are expecting Ojulari -- and the rest of the outside linebackers corps -- to be all business this season.
All that group has heard since the conclusion of last season is how they need to “create more havoc.” That’s a reference to “havoc plays,” which Georgia deems as quarterback sacks, pressures, tackles for loss, fumbles, interceptions and tipped balls. Nationally, the Bulldogs ranked 84th and 95th, respectively, in sacks and tackles for loss last season.
The well-verbalized goal this season is for 20 percent of the opposition’s offensive plays from scrimmage to result in one of those six outcomes.
Ojulari, for one, believes that can be achieved.
“This is a group that can wreak havoc, do some damage to teams,” he said.
Being a spokesman for the outside linebackers is new ground for Ojulari. To date, he has been best identified as the only (known) Georgia football player who is the descendant of a Nigerian king. His grandfather was confirmed as Prince Twins Sevens-Seven in a New York Times obituary. That detail was unveiled in a “Next Generation” piece that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution not long after he signed with the Bulldogs in 2018.
Turns out royalty is not the only thing Ojulari has going for him. He can play a little ball as well.
It took a while to find that out. Ojulari appeared in only three games last season, thus the redshirt tag. But he finished with a bang, recording three tackles (one for a loss) in the Sugar Bowl loss against Texas. He replaced the recently departed Brenton Cox, ineffective that day as the starter, and played the majority of the game at the “Jack .”
Fast forward to this season, and not only is Ojulari getting some work with the No. 1 defense, he’s also sitting on the team’s leadership committee. That’s a distinction rarely bestowed upon an underclassman, especially one that is not a quarterback.
“I’ve just kept my head down, kept working, doing whatever I can do to help the team,” Ojulari said of his ascension.
His performance in the Sugar Bowl helped, but it has mostly been about what Ojulari has done since then. Primarily that is get bigger, stronger and faster. He said he’s up “a good 10 to 15 pounds.” The 6-foot-3 athlete said he is currently playing at 250 pounds.
The big question now is how Ojulari fits in. Georgia, as has been noted before, has a lot of outside linebackers. And most of them came with a higher recruiting profile than Ojulari, who was no slouch as a consensus 4-star prospect. One of the reasons Brenton Cox chose to transfer (he landed at Florida) was he found himself playing behind Ojulari.
In addition to junior Walter Grant, the returning starter at the “Sam,” or strongside position, the Bulldogs’ outside linebackers also feature sophomores Adam Anderson and Robert Beal, and freshman Nolan Smith, who all were ranked 5-star recruits, and Jermaine Johnson, who was the No. 1 overall junior college recruit.
That’s a glut of talent even with Cox now playing for the rival Gators, especially considering the defense can deploy at most two outside linebackers at a time, and often just one.
Lanning sees this as a good problem. He intends to assign very specific roles to each of his charges.
“At the end of the day, you find roles for guys that are ready,” Lanning said. “You want to make sure you put your guys in the best position to be successful and some guys do some things better than other guys. So, within that, we obviously have packages that match that, and they need to become experts at their position.”
Lanning didn’t bother to define each linebacker’s specific role. Cornerback Eric Stokes identified Ojulari as “a big closer,” meaning quick to the ball whether it is being run, caught or about to be thrown.
That might mean Ojulari will be most useful on first down, or third-and-medium, where the play-calls are more varied. Or perhaps he’ll be a pass-rushing specialist.
All that is still being sorted out in camp. And Ojulari seems to be OK with whatever role is decided for him.
“We’ve got guys that can go, guys that can rush, that can do whatever’s needed,” Ojulari said. “That’s just so valuable, that everybody’s just ready to go and do whatever the coach wants. It’s about the whole defense, about everybody just getting after it and trying to make plays. That’s how you get the win.”
Perhaps that’s why Ojulari finds himself in front of cameras and microphones, and Cox finds himself playing in Florida.
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