When Richard Morgan took the head coaching job at Marietta High School in 2016, he immediately identified that Azeez Ojulari was special.
At the time, Ojulari was finishing his sophomore year and didn’t yet have any scholarship offers. But Morgan told Ojulari that he was going to be the focal point of the program, and soon Ojulari had offers from schools across the country, including Georgia.
Now, Ojulari is a key defensive player for the Bulldogs and was named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker.
“I just saw some things in him that I knew he was going to be a special, special player,” Morgan told the AJC. “He took that role and ran with it. The next thing you know he had 20 offers and then he had 30 offers and then he was an All-American, and now he’s doing he’s doing his thing in the SEC.”
A play Ojulari made against Blessed Trinity as a senior at Marietta is still the first clip Morgan shows his team each season.
In that game, Blessed Trinity lined up on the 50-yard line without about five seconds left in the first half. Morgan sent Ojulari to rush the quarterback because he expected a pass, but Blessed Trinity instead handed the ball off to running back Elijah Green, who’s now at UNC.
“(Ojulari) was 20 yards behind the play, and he sprinted down the field (and) tackled the Division I running back who had a 15-yard head start on him,” Morgan said. “(He) was the only kid on our defense that could get there. Tackled him on the 5-yard line, they don’t score, we end up winning the game by two points. ...
“That’s just an example of just a kid who wants to make a play and never gives up on the play, and he did it against a high-quality, high-caliber team and a great player on the other side. That’s what we want all of our players to be like when we play. He’s still the example that we use now as to what we want.”
Three years and some change later, those traits that Ojulari put on display at Marietta are being noticed by coaches across the SEC. On the SEC coaches' weekly conference call Wednesday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said that Ojulari is one of the best pass rushers in the league.
Added Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt: “He’s a guy that plays extremely hard. Talented. He’s big enough and strong enough (that) once he gets on an edge of an offensive player, he can capture the edge and finish on the quarterback. He’s a guy that can play all three downs.”
Last season, Ojulari became the first freshman to be chosen a captain in coach Kirby Smart’s tenure at Georgia when he was named captain against Tennessee. Ojulari’s off-field traits combine with his talent on the field to make him a key leader for the Bulldogs.
“When you evaluate a person from on and off the field, not just physical performance, he checks all the boxes,” Smart said. “And then on top of that, he’s a really good athlete. I’m proud of the way he’s working and the growth he’s made. I think he’s better right now than he was this time last year.”
In 2019, Ojulari led the Bulldogs in sacks with 5.5. Through four games this season, he has three, which leads the team, and he ranks fifth in total tackles with 15.
Ojulari deflects talking about his own accomplishments and said his trust in Georgia’s coaching staff and a commitment to improve every day have gotten him where he is, but both Morgan and Smart referenced Ojulari’s work ethic as a key element of his success.
“I’m just proud of him because he plays the game so well,” Morgan said. “It’s funny to hear the announcers always saying great things about him and I’m just like, I’ve known the kid since he was 16 and I saw all those things in him. Now the whole world is seeing just how great of a person and how great of a player he is. He’s earned everything he’s gotten. He deserves it because of the amount of work he put in.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution