Pat Fitzgerald must have been ecstatic when Ifeadi Odenigbo announced his commitment to Northwestern. The four-star defensive end ranked 51st in ESPN's ranking of the top 150 recruits, and he held offers from powerhouses such as Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Odenigbo was undoubtedly one of most talented prep stars to ever choose Northwestern.
He's only been in Evanston for two years, but much of Odenigbo's talent and potential has not been seen in action yet. The 6-foot-3, 235 pound defensive end suffered a season-ending elbow injury in his first game as a Wildcat in 2012. He received a medical hardship waiver and saved a year of eligibility, but his big arrival on the field was put on hold.
Last season Odenigbo assumed the role as a third-down specialist. Mike Hankwitz sent him in on third-and-longs and other passing situations to pressure the quarterback and give Dean Lowry a breather. Odenigbo proved his pass-rushing ability, grabbing 5.5 sacks, second on the team behind just Tyler Scott. Still, that was about it for Odenigbo, as he finished the season with 9 tackles.
2014 may be his breakout season. Tyler Scott graduated leaving a gaping hole on the defensive line. While Dean Lowry has a lock on one of the starting end spots, Odenigbo will compete with junior Deonte Gibson for the other. Gibson has a more all-around game, and experience is on his side, but Odenigbo's raw ability and athleticism are hard to keep on the sideline.
No matter who is starting, Odenigbo and Gibson will each get their fair share of play time, and junior Max Chapman will likely move between tackle and end to mix up looks on the defensive line. Odenigbo is going to own third-downs again. It's just a matter of if he can earn the starting spot through developing his overall game.
To do so, Odenigbo needs to improve at stopping the run. The majority of his tackles last season were sacks, so he obviously didn't contribute much to taking down running backs. He's bulked up a bit and will get more snaps in practice with the first team, so his run defense will improve some. His biggest contribution though will still be in the pass rush and pressuring the quarterback.
Expectations for Odenigbo are going to vary, but I think he can at least double his tackles total from a year ago and take down the quarterback a couple more times. Deonte Gibson had 22 tackles last season as a back-up and Dean Lowry totaled 33. Odenigbo is bigger, more experienced and going to have an increased role in 2014, so getting 20 tackles is definitely an attainable mark. And unless opponents determine Odenigbo requires a double team in pass protection, he should bump his sack total up to 7 or 8.
For Odenigbo, it's not all about tackling though. Rushing the passer and forcing hurries will help the secondary out. And just having him in the game will make opposing quarterbacks have their eye on him and frustrate offensive tackles. His athleticism and size crate mismatches and confusion that no other Northwestern player can.
Production on the field and statistics are always nice, but this is just Odenigbo's sophomore season. While 'Cats fans want to see him grab 30 tackles and get to double digit sacks, the most important thing for Odenigbo this year is development. He has several years left in Evanston, and could become the best player on the entire Northwestern roster. Odenigbo won't be thrown into an every-down role if he's not ready. His future as a Wildcat is too valuable.