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Offseason Musings: Opportunity Awaits For Northwestern Redshirt Freshman DE Ifeadi Odenigbo.

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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Expectations ran rampant. One year ago, Ifeadi Odenigbo was the great thrilling unknown. Arguably the most highly-rated recruit in program history, who had quite literally turned down basically every great historical college football powerhouse of the 20th century – Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, USC, you name it – had instead chosen to play for Northwestern, and it was impossible to think Odenigbo would not only break into the defensive end rotation his first year on campus. A lot of folks expected more. They expected Odenigbo’s recruiting acclaim to translate into gaudy sack totals and All Big Ten recognition. They expected a transcendent player, early maturation and scheme adjustments sold separately. They expected flashes of brilliance from the start.

The story, as they like to say, went something a little different. Odenigbo didn’t play in the season opener at Syracuse, then was inserted for five plays in a home win over Vanderbilt to fill in for an injured Deonte Gibson. Those were the only plays he would see in 2012 – it was later confirmed, after sitting out three consecutive games, that Odenigbo would seek a medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending elbow injury. The announcement made it official: Odenigbo’s first season, judged relative to massively unreasonable expectations, was a disappointment. Maybe Odenigbo wasn’t all that his high school game tape and recruiting rankings made him out to be. What if he fits better at linebacker? He’s overrated. He’s just another dude.

Those words never came out of even the most skeptical Wildcats fan’s mouth, I would suspect, because if you really believe last season was the peak of Odenigbo’s potential – if one game, five plays and an unfortunate injury in his freshman season casts a foreboding air of doubt over the rest of his NU career – you must not be paying attention. Odenigbo was at full strength in spring practice this season, and as he took more and more reps at defensive end, the explosiveness and unexpected power started to come together into a devastating pass-rushing package.

If I were to slot Odenigbo in the defensive line rotation today, he wouldn’t be starting. Sophomores Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry, as well as senior Tyler Scott, should enter preseason camp with a leg up on the Centerville, Ohio, native. But am I ruling out the possibility Odenigbo could win the starting job many expected him to seize upon arrival last season? Not at all. That’s what makes this second season so fascinating, and so crucial, for Odenigbo’s future prospects on the defensive line. Now that he’s had a chance to acclimate himself at the defensive end position, removed any lingering misgivings about positional uncertainty, and added more than 30 pounds since last summer, Odenigbo has everything he needs to seize the opportunity in front of him, climb the depth chart and prove why scouts and rival major conference powers drooled over him throughout his recruiting process in the first place.

Spring practice was a small sample, and this year’s workouts in particular, which featured as little contact and grueling full-speed repetitions as possible to control against depth concerns, didn’t really allow Odenigbo to truly make his case for a starting defensive end spot.

There are no such barriers in preseason practice: it’s all systems go for Northwestern’s super 2012 prospect, and if Odenigbo is the player his recruiting merits suggest – the player ESPN Recruiting Nation said “could be a heck of an end if he adds more bulk.” -- we’d all like to find out what that player looks like in a Wildcats uniform. Well, Odenigbo has added more bulk, has fully recovered from his elbow injury and most important of all, has one obvious and simply defined goal heading into training camp: win a starting spot. Become more than a backup. Not the player last season’s expectations conceived our of sheer blissful uncertainty, but a solid and consistently productive pass-rushing end.

It is no guarantee Odenigbo will surpass Lowry or Gibson (Scott, the Big Ten’s leading returning sack man, is a lock at this point). It is a reasonably optimistic projection given his decorated recruitment, his year of rehabilitation and physical growth and his individual comfort individually at defensive end, and collectively with the Wildcats’ general defensive philosophy. Opportunity beckons. Odenigbo just needs to go out and seize it.

Expectations are different one year later, mainly because Odenigbo’s redshirt season took some of the luster off his glorious signing day announcement. The reality of his position and his ability to assume a starting, or important rotation spot in Northwestern’s line remains all the same, and there is no reason to believe Odenigbo can’t step into the great chance that stands before him: a young defensive line with talented but mostly young (exception: Scott) players lining the depth chart. Odenigbo can and should make good on his hype starting this season.