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Ifeadi Odenigbo living up to his expectations (finally)

Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern Wildcats, Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska Cornhuskers

At the moment Northwestern needed it most, the team’s breakthrough recruit is dominating offensive lines. Ifeadi Odenigbo has finally arrived.

Ifeadi Odenigbo’s arrival in Evanston was unlike any other in Northwestern’s history.

The Wildcats are not recruiting savants. Their self-imposed academic limitations and their status as a perpetual also-ran and historical doormat in the world of college football means they do not get a lot of recruiting accolades. Five-star players are not considering Northwestern. The Wildcats were more likely to compete against MAC schools than other Big Ten schools.

Pat Fitzgerald changed all of that. And, in the world of recruiting rankings at least, Ifeadi Odenigbo was his prize. The highest rated recruit to ever choose Northwestern.

247Sports ranked Odenigbo the 65th best prospect in the class of 2012. He chose Northwestern over offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan and Oregon. Real blue bloods in college football.

He did not arrive in Evanston without his questions. He was a 3-4 linebacker moving to a 4-3 defense. The coaching staff would decide whether to make him a linebacker or convert him to defensive end. He was a bit undersized, but the Wildcats envisioned using his speed to overwhelm offensive lineman.

The transition was a struggle. But at long last, Odenigbo is delivering. The four-star lineman who chose Northwestern and appeared to be the zenith of their recruiting birth is finally making a weekly impact on the field.

Odenigbo recorded a program-record four sacks against Iowa. Then added two more, including a strip sack, against Michigan State.

Even though Northwestern’s defense has struggled overall, Odenigbo’s emergence has been as big a sign of Northwestern’s rebirth this season as anything else. Six of his seven sacks this season have come in the last two games.

It has been a long slog for the senior defensive end.

He entered Northwestern with all the hype and made an impact on passing downs. He blew past Vanderbilt’s offensive line for his first career sack. Then an injury sidelined him and earned him a redshirt year.

For much of his first three healthy years, Odenigbo settled into the role of pure pass rusher. He was a sack specialist, but was not someone the team could rely on to cover the run.

The hype had come before the train with Odenigbo. Looking at his full career, it is hard not to say he did not live up to expectations. That was something Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged in his evaluation of Odenigbo following his breakthrough game against Iowa.

“Thats the nature of recruiting these days,” Fitzgerald told Zach Wingrove of Inside NU. “I think it’s a blessing and a curse you get from those dot com sites in recruiting. He had an inflated image from the standpoint of external factors coming in and he was a guy that only played a couple of years of high school football.”

Even for Northwestern, a four-star rating is no guarantee of anything.

Odenigbo’s story itself is an interesting one. He did not pick up football until late in his high school career. He was always a high-upside prospect. Odenigbo admitted to Wingrove his football IQ was not particularly high when he started off. He relied heavily on his athleticism and that can only get a player so far in the Big Ten.

It took four seasons, but Odenigbo is finally living up to those lofty expectations from his arrival on campus.

Everyone knew he was a handful coming off the edge and getting to the quarterback. But now that has come to it full fruition.

With Northwestern’s back against the wall in Iowa City, it was the quiet Odenigbo who stepped up as a leader and demanded more of himself and his teammates. He spoke up in team meetings and chapel and shed his doubt.

The pressure valve was released and Northwestern returned to playing loose and efficient.

The defense has had its issues these last two weeks — 31 points allowed against Iowa and 40 against Michigan State. But every time Northwestern has called on its senior to make a big play, Odenigbo has.

Northwestern’s recruiting has taken off since then too. Since Odenigbo’s arrival, Northwestern has secured five four-star recruits (backup quarterback Matt Alviti, safety Parrker Westphal, all-Big Ten running back Justin Jackson, starting quarterback Clayton Thorson, emerging superback Garrett Dickerson) according to 247Sports. That includes four in 2014.

Odenigbo has not panned out perfectly. And Northwestern’s coaching staff does not obsess over “star” ratings. But undeniably, Northwestern has put themselves in the game for several of these top recruits when the fit is right.

It took Odenigbo time to find his fit and get his opportunity. This season is his first as a full-time starter. He has found his way to defend the run, allowing Northwestern to implement his devastating pass rush more often.

Offensive lines will now have to account for Odenigbo coming off the edge. The terror Northwestern fans envisioned when Odenigbo surprisingly took the chance at Northwestern.

It came late in his career. It was not the banner career his recruiting accolades seemingly called for. But Odenigbo may very well have saved Northwestern’s season with his record performance against Iowa. The Wildcats have swagger and confidence again.

That is the kind of faith a star player can infuse a team with. Odenigbo, at long last, has ascended to the forefront for Northwestern.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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