Adetokunbo Ogundeji: Path to the NFL DRaft
Success hasn’t always come easy for Adetokunbo Ogundeji. Under-rated and under-recruited out of high school, he had to wait three years for his first start for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Forever a competitor in the ultimate competitive sport, he’s fought every step of the way to the NFL Draft. After impressing at the Reece’s Senior Bowl, he’s ready to take the fight to the next level.
“Number 1, they’re going to get a guy who’s going to work on his craft every single day, work to be a technician. Number 2, you’re going to get a guy who’s trying to be the best. Not just an average player, or a starter, I truly think I’m capable of being the best player at my position. Number 3, you’re going to get a guy who’s running around to the ball, every single play, like his head’s on fire.”
A natural-born competitor, Adetokunbo Ogundeji found the perfect outlet for his competitive nature on the football fields of West Bloomfield, Michigan. A Detroit Lions fan, his love for the game was crafted on a diet of Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh while getting involved in the trenches during Pop Warner and Middle School.
“I really enjoyed the game. I just love competing. It’s the ultimate team sport. It’s a competitive sport. You’re competing every single down. Even when you’re doing different drills you’re always competing. It’s pretty fun.”
An offensive lineman during his early career, he found his natural position on the defensive line at Walled Lake Central High School. Although high school football in the state of Michigan isn’t held in the same regard as the likes of Florida and Texas, it still provided a battle ground for a young Adetokunbo Ogundeji to demonstrate his competitive ability.
“It’s not like a huge powerhouse but there’s some really good athletes in Michigan. We had a ton at Notre Dame, guys who got recruited and went there and played really good football. Obviously, the schools aren’t as big, they don’t have like 15 or 20 Division I players on one school. But I would say it’s a lot of fun, it’s competitive, my school was a bigger school so we got to play against a lot of teams from all over Michigan. It was a fun experience.”
"I Went To Camp, They Offered Me, And I Took It"
As a junior in 2014, Adetokunbo helped Walled Lake to a high school playoff spot after a standout season. The dominant defensive lineman racked up 68 tackles, 9 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and broke up 17 passes. Despite his impressive performances on the field, he didn’t receive the same recruiting attention as you’d expect from a productive three-star recruit.
“My recruiting was a bit different. I wasn’t really highly recruited by any schools. My first offer was Western Michigan as I was going into my junior year. I just took it! Committed there and didn’t really get any offers from any other schools. Going into my senior year I went to some camps, got a couple of offers from other MAC schools. Then I went to a Notre Dame camp. My team usually goes to a 7 on 7 camp every year, but they said go to the “Big Man Camp” and see what you can do. I went there and they liked what I did. Went to the office, talked to some coaches, and a couple of days later they said they were going to offer me. I really didn’t get offered until late in the process. I wasn’t someone who was getting recruited throughout the process. It was kinda like: I went to a camp, they offered me, and I took it.”
He arrived in South Bend in 2016 without truly realising the history of the Notre Dame program. However, it’s fair to say that the university left a lasting impression on Adetokunbo Ogundeji from the minute he set foot on the campus.
“I honestly didn’t know a lot about Notre Dame when I first got there, when I first got the offer. I didn’t really know about the education and academics. As soon as I got there, I knew how much the tradition was. People talked about it all the time. There were so many students whose fathers, mothers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers went to Notre Dame so you can tell that the tradition of Notre Dame is so huge there. For me to be over there, to see the great players who come out of there, and not just the players but the great alumni who have done great things in this country and over the world, was a pretty cool experience.”
His experience and impact on the football field wouldn’t be so immediate. Adetokunbo Ogundeji redshirted in 2016 and would see limited playing time between in 2017 and 2018. It was a difficult time, but the competitor within used it as a motivation to ensure he would be ready to make the most of his opportunity when it presented itself.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve done really in my life. Just sitting there and seeing a lot of teammates play. We didn’t have a really good season, so a lot of freshman really got to play. When you’re sitting on the bench knowing you’re not going to play is pretty tough. But, I think it just motivated me and put a chip on my shoulder to get better each and every day. I also just knew that whenever they asked me, whenever my time was coming, whenever I got on the field, I knew that I was going to be prepared and ready to roll and they weren’t going to be able to take me out.”
That breakout season came in 2019. In a year where he made his first start against Stanford, he amassed 34 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. According to Pro Football Focus, he earned the second-best overall grade on the team.
“It was pretty important. A lot of things went crazy that season. We had some guys who got injured so I was able to have the opportunity to play, and to start towards the end of the season. I think a lot of things fell in place, and I thank God for that. That season was a really good point to get ready. I felt like I was physically ready to play and all I needed to work on was the mental side of it.”
He ended the 2019 in style with a sack in each of the last three games including two in the start against Stanford. Coming off his senior season with the Fighting Irish with real momentum, there was the possibility to ride that in to the 2020 NFL Draft. However, there was a better use for that momentum in Adetokunbo Ogundeji’s eyes.
“My focus was that we had the chance to win a National Championship that season. We were two games away that season and with the guys that we brought back and the younger guys we were going to have, I felt like we had a chance to win a National Championship. That was my focus. The NFL will happen. But, you’re never going to be with that same team again so I wanted to go back, and have a chance to compete for a National Championship.”
Although the Fighting Irish would ultimately come up short of that goal in 2020, it didn’t dampen his emotions of playing in a season that almost never happened. Amongst all the disruption of the 2020 college football season, he reflects back on something a little more than football.
“There was so many things and issues that could have prevented us from playing this season. There was so many things that were talked about us not playing. So just playing the season, playing against ACC competition, getting the opportunity to play against the number one team twice, was a pretty awesome experience. Having a chance to compete was a big thing. But, just being with the guys. You don’t realise how cool and crazy an experience it is to be around over 100 guys on a team, play with them, hang around with them, until it’s over. Then you realise it was a brotherhood. That was a special time for me.”
They may be a brotherhood in the locker room and around the campus, but out on the practice field they formed a competitive environment for Adetokunbo Ogundeji to thrive. Notre Dame has a history of producing incredible offensive lineman, and the experience of going up against them every day only helped him hone his craft.
“I have to say they’ve produced a lot of good defensive lineman too” he laughs “but yeah, going against those guys make us better. When you’re going against the best of the best in practice every day, it’s only going to make you better. It’s only going to get you better in your craft, it’s going to make you work every single day. You want to beat them, because you want to beat the best.”
He reserves special praise for one former Notre Dame offensive lineman who is currently dominating on a Sunday.
“The best would have to be Quenton Nelson. At that size, he was able to move very quickly. Very smart player, knew exactly where he was going, knew exactly where the defense was going to be at before it happened. He was a big guy! Any big guy who can move like that is a problem!”
Shining At The Senior Bowl
Following the 2020 college football season, Notre Dame defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. In doing so, he took his competitive nature from the practice field, from the Notre Dame campus, from the fields of the ACC, and put it on display at the Reece’s Senior Bowl in Mobile.
The under-recruited defensive lineman from West Bloomfield, Michigan catapulted himself into the national conscious with some impressive performances in practice in front of NFL decision makers. His performances in Wednesday practice in particular caught the eye of Pro Football Network NFL Draft analyst Ian Cummings who said:
“Ogundeji showed flashes on Day 1, and on Day 2, without Levi Onwuzurike on the field, the Notre Dame product shined. His length is incredibly effective at creating penetration, but he also has impressive burst and hand power. Additionally, Ogundeji flashed exciting flexibility more than once today, beating Robert Hainsey with that flexibility on one occasion. He’s quickly becoming a big riser.”
It was another opportunity for iron to meet iron, for the best to compete with the best.
“Firstly, I just want to say thank you to Jim Nagy and his staff for giving me the opportunity. It was a great opportunity to be with the best seniors in the country. It was a great time. Especially being able to see people face to face, to see teams and scouts face to face with interviews was awesome. Competing with the best was a great time. I though it was great for me to show what I could do.”
The Ultimate Competitor
At this time of the year, in the midst of the NFL Draft process, it’s easy to wheel out a list of highlight videos to demonstrate what a player can do. However, the measure of a player isn’t always how well they can do things, but how they recover when they don’t do something well. Do you sit there with your head in your hands as a running back who just evaded your tackle gallops into the end zone? Or do you get back up and make amends?
The ultimate competitor does the latter, and that’s what Adetokunbo Ogundeji prides himself on.
“One of the games would be something that I’d mess up on. I know that would be kinda crazy to bring up but I think one of the plays I messed up on, I realised I’d messed up, and I was straight down the field, right there on the tackle, fifty yards down the field. That explains me because I play 100%, head-on-fire, every single play. You’re not getting a guy who takes plays off or messes up and stays on the ground. I’m getting up and going to attack the ball every single play. That’s how I’ve played since I was in middle school, that’s how I’ve played all five years in college. You can put on the film and it’s the same guy, running to the ball on every single play. I pride myself on that.”
That’s the true sign of a competitor. Another sign is knowing the work is never done. For Adetokunbo Ogundeji, the 2021 NFL Draft is a dream come true, but it’s just the start.
“It’d be an amazing dream come true. All this work to get there, it would be amazing. My whole story has been quite different from other peoples so to make it this far would be a blessing. But I know it wouldn’t be the end of the journey, it’s only the beginning.”
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Huge thanks to Adetokunbo Ogundeji for taking the time to speak to us.