Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jul 2, 2013

The discrete components that mix an mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

“Time to Step Up” is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.

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Anything other than excitement, optimism or some positive combination therein would have been an atypical emotional premise with which to approach Ifeadi Odenigbo’s first season of college football. He committed to the Wildcats a month before signing day after turning down basically every annual national championship contender you can possibly think of, offered the promise of dazzling pass rushing skills and entered preseason camp with the possibility – the expectation, even – of skipping his redshirt season and giving Northwestern’s defense a young dash of natural talent and athleticism it hadn’t seen in years.

Underdeveloped preseason physique aside, Odenigbo would overcome any physical disadvantages with explosiveness, underrated strength and sheer instinctual wisdom. Year 1 of Odenigbo, a potential preview of the physical and tactical development over the next three seasons, was going to be something to behold.

This was the running storyline entering fall camp. Odenigbo didn’t suit up for the season-opener at Syracuse, but saw his first college action one week later when Deonte Gibson went down with an injury against Vanderbilt. His stint lasted five plays, and just like that, Odenigbo’s freshman trial run had come to an end. In the week leading up to the Boston College game, it was learned that Odenigbo would redshirt after suffering a season-ending shoulder surgery.

Unless you can find conclusive analysis about Odenigbo’s pass-rushing technique or his long-term prospectus as a key cog in Northwestern’s defense from those five snaps he played against Vanderbilt, Odenigbo’s season shouldn’t be considered a disappointment. Indeed, by performance standards, the answer is null. The disappointing part, if you want to call it that, is that his first year of football was derailed by injury.

You could also take the long view, and look at Odenigbo’s season of inactivity as a golden opportunity to add muscle – which he reportedly (and observationally) did this offseason – to round off any unsound aspects of his pass-rushing technique and to develop into a more complete player through practice repetitions. All of those common tropes about redshirt seasons are easy to make assumptions about without any empirical or factual evidence behind them, but Odenigbo’s performance in spring practice was that of a player who had really started to figure out both the individual and collective qualities of his pass-rushing responsibilities.

He was explosive from the snap, elusive on the line of scrimmage and relentless in pursuit. These are all good signs from a player whose biggest strengths coming out of high school involved athleticism, strength and quickness. Odenigbo brought all that in spring ball on a weekly basis, with the strength and proper (or at the very least improved) playing weight to boot.

Turning his offseason of rehab and physical refinement into a productive redshirt freshman season is the next order of business. Odenigbo has the football skills to do it, no doubt, and the physical component of his game isn’t far behind. The highest-rated recruit of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure is prepared for his first full season, and even if he doesn’t start the season in a starting spot – Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson have stronger claims to week 1 starters reps; as always, depth chart positioning is subject to change during preseason camp – his baseline for an improved performance is demandingly high.

There is no obvious reason it shouldn’t be.

© 2013 Inside Northwestern