Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo’s paths from Michigan football to NFL combine spotlight

Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — About two weeks ago, Pro Football Focus, the analytics website, announced it is partnering with Aidan Hutchinson on a podcast detailing his young life. It seemed a worthwhile project for both parties considering the Michigan football standout could be the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL draft. Hutchinson has invested considerable time in his side gig, arranging interviews with guests and outlining episodes. On Friday, at the NFL combine, he even did some impromptu promotional work as he pitched “Hutch” to a large crowd of reporters.

When one media member piped up and asked what story he wanted to tell about himself, he smiled and said, “You’re gonna have to watch to find out.”

It was a solid teaser, but 30 minutes later, his former teammate at Michigan, David Ojabo, made the audience wonder why he wasn’t the one hosting a podcast.

“I’m just focused on football,” Ojabo said.

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That’s a shame because the talented edge defender, who burst on the scene last fall as Hutchinson’s pass-rushing wingman, oozes charisma and has traveled an unusual path while becoming a potential first-round choice. Born in Nigeria, he grew up in Scotland and moved to New Jersey at 15 with the goal of becoming somebody. Initially, he saw a future in basketball at Blair Academy, the private school he attended. Then he ran into a few 7-footers on the court, and the 6-foot-5 Ojabo’s hopes were crushed.

He soon switched to track, hoping he could excel in a sport where pure athleticism separates the best from the rest. Ojabo knew he was naturally gifted with quick-twitch reflexes and an explosive burst. So did Odafe Oweh, the current Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker in the class above him. Oweh told him he should try football, which Ojabo had never played and didn’t really understand. As a high school junior, Ojabo strapped on a helmet for the first time and began his remarkable ascent to the big stage of the NFL combine, where teams are exploring if he really can become a bona fide star.

“They’re all trying to get to know me, trying to get to know who I am as a player,” Ojabo said. “I was first on the scene last year, so they’re just trying to figure out who David Ojabo is.”

So, how would he best answer that?

“I’m a Scottish guy, born in Nigeria and just trying to learn this new sport and just be the best at it.”

After playing only 27 snaps his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, Ojabo was tabbed last summer as a starter in new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s system. Teaming with Hutchinson, he feasted on quarterbacks. His 11 sacks and five forced fumbles helped lift the Wolverines to a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff appearance the season after a 2-4 finish.

“This Michigan team we had this year, we rose from the ashes and no one thought we were going to be anything,” Hutchinson said. “And we did something that many thought was impossible.”

Hutchinson relished playing the underdog, though he really didn’t fit that bill. Since his days at Dearborn Divine Child, Hutchinson appeared destined for greatness. The son of a Michigan All-American defensive lineman, he had the bloodlines to excel in his chosen sport. Ojabo, on the other hand, was a true wild card. Back at Blair Academy, he and Owae, another football neophyte, wondered if they could harness their natural talents to achieve something big.

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“We’re new to this,” Ojabo said. “We don’t have dads who played or uncles who played or even friends, for real, who played. Just shut up and learn. There’s so much to learn. There’s so much wisdom to gain, and we have the athletic ability to be sky high, so why not just take it all in and apply that to ourselves?

Ojabo has done that every step of the way, first mastering the difference between the A, B and C gaps before moving onto more complicated concepts. Last year, he absorbed the teachings of Macdonald and took tidbits from analyst Ryan Osborn, whom he likened to a guru. He also shadowed Hutchinson, the 2021 Heisman Trophy runner-up, who could have submitted his name for the draft a year ago.

Entering the 2021 season, before Hutchinson set a school record with 14 sacks, one NFL scouting service pegged him as a late first- or second-round pick despite a fractured ankle that derailed his junior year. At the same time Ojabo remained a mystery, Hutchinson was seen as a known commodity. Moving up to the top of the board was never out of the realm of possibility, though Hutchinson insists his football odyssey wasn’t as linear as it may seem.

“You know, it’s been a journey at Michigan with a lot of adversity,” he said.

[ Celebrate Michigan football’s historic 2021 season with this new Free Press book! ]

Hutchinson hopes to chronicle it on his podcast as he capitalizes on his fame. Ojabo, a relative newcomer to the glitz and glamour of big-time football, figures he’ll have time to tell his story when he reaches his final destination. When he does, former Michigan linebacker Josh Ross knows his audience will be captivated.

“For him to be at the moment he is now, it took so much hard work, focus and dedication that honestly not a lot of people knew about until he started coming on the scene,” Ross said. “That’s my guy, Ojabo, King Ja. He’s real genuine. He’s real authentic. And he’s himself.”

Those are some of the traits needed in a good narrator. But it’s the speed, the power and the drive that have carried him to the NFL’s raised platform, allowing him to share his improbable tale.

“I knew there was something out there for me,” Ojabo said. “I just knew I was going to make it somehow.”

Now everyone wants to know how he did it — and what is still to come. So stay on the lookout to find out what’s next.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter

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