MIAMI — Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo enter the CFP semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl as the best pass-rushing tandem in college football.
Together, they transformed the Michigan defensive front this season into a nightmarish force that makes coordinators jittery and offensive linemen lose their nerve, combining for 25 sacks. Hutchinson finished second in Heisman voting.
But had anyone said that would be the case in August, one may have raised an eyebrow and asked, “David who?”
Hutchinson had the pedigree coming into Michigan, the son of a former Wolverines standout, a top recruit, groomed in every possible way to become a star. Ojabo, on the other hand, grew up playing basketball and soccer in Nigeria and Scotland, and was only introduced to football in high school. Entering this season, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior linebacker had never started a game at Michigan. Never had a college sack.
Something changed not only for them, but between them, this past offseason. And it played a huge part in Michigan being here, facing Georgia in the CFP Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
Ojabo, wanting much more for himself, and more importantly, more for his team, walked up to Hutchinson one day with not so much a request, but a statement.
“I’m going to be in your hip pocket,” Ojabo told Hutchinson.
All day. Every day.
SINCE HIGH SCHOOL, all Ojabo heard for four straight years was how much raw talent and incredible potential he had on a football field.
“Just wait until you put it all together!” coaches would tell him.
Ojabo nodded and understood, but that did not help his patience as his first two seasons unfolded at Michigan. Teammates all around him made their assignments look easy; meanwhile, Ojabo was still trying to learn what it meant to play football.
He only came to learn the sport as a high school junior, and really only by happenstance. After his family moved from Nigeria to Scotland when he was 7, Ojabo played on organized basketball and soccer teams and dominated in short order. His mom, Ngor, said in an interview from their home in Scotland that at the time, her son was no longer really getting fulfillment from playing sports.
His coaches began researching high schools in the United States that could provide not only a greater challenge in athletics, but had stellar academic reputations. His father, Victor, laid out a series of academic benchmarks that Ojabo had to reach for him to be allowed to leave.
He reached them all. So at age 15, Ojabo left Scotland for Blair Academy in New Jersey, with dreams of one day playing in the NBA.
“He’s someone that had a passionate drive, and you knew that if he doesn’t do this, he won’t fulfill his destiny,” Ngor Ojabo said. “There was something about him that if you kept him back, it would not be good for him.”
David Ojabo lived in a dorm room with a roommate, and desperately missed home. But every time he felt homesick, or cried long into the night, he gave himself a reminder.
“I’m here on a mission,” he thought. “I left my family consciously at a young age purely just to make it out. So all the pain and all that got to be directed towards that.”
Ojabo started running track and field at Blair, a sport he had never taken up in Scotland. He won the 100-meter state championship as a sophomore in 10.93 seconds, even though he weighed 225 pounds at the time. His blazing speed and size caught the eye of football coaches.
Though the hitting took some getting used to, his physical tools were obvious. Soon, the football scholarship offers started rolling in, and Ojabo chose Michigan.
He did not play his freshman season. Last year proved especially frustrating, as Ojabo only played 26 snaps in specialized defensive packages. When 2020 ended, he had yet to make a start or a sack, and Michigan had gone 2-4, its worst record since 2014.
Something had to change.
If he wanted to be the best player he could be, Ojabo decided he had to model Hutchinson. That meant copying his work ethic, study habits, what it meant to truly put in the time and effort to live up to the potential everyone always talked about.
“At the end of the day, I have the tools and the physical traits, but it’s the work ethic and the grind, and just knowing that you’re not going to fall from the sky and become a top-round pick,” Ojabo said. “You’ve got to grind. You’ve got to put it on film. I guess it’s the mentality part. And then the stars kind of aligned with my physical traits, and then kind of took off.”
WHEN HUTCHINSON WAS growing up, he wrote down his goals in notebooks, chief among them playing at Michigan, where his father, Chris, starred as a defensive tackle from 1989 to 1992 and won four Big Ten titles. An ocean away, Ojabo wrote down his own goals on Post-it Notes he had scattered all over his room. One of them read: “America bound.”
Ojabo may not have known about what it meant to win Big Ten titles at Michigan until he arrived in Ann Arbor, but Hutchinson grew up living and breathing their importance. He arrived at Michigan in 2018, one year before Ojabo, ready to end a 14-year Big Ten championship drought.
By the time last season ended, he had his own source of frustration. An ankle injury limited him to three games in 2020, and the losing record may have stung worse.
Hutchinson not only rededicated himself to fulfilling his own potential after his injury healed, he made it his mission to pull all his teammates with him to beat Ohio State and bring the Big Ten title back to Michigan.
Hutchinson and Ojabo work well together, not only because they share similar characteristics — Hutchinson is 6-6, 265 pounds — but because they knew if they fed off each other and made each other better, it would translate to wins.
“Every day, he was right with me that whole time, even in the days that it was very difficult,” Hutchinson said. “He was grinding his ass off this whole offseason.”
Long before the season began, the defensive ends came up with a name for themselves: The Reapers. Chris Hutchinson asked his son, “You won two games last year. How are you making a name for your position group?”
Aidan Hutchinson responded, “We know what we’ve got in our room, and we feel confident in that and don’t care what anybody else thinks.”
The biggest X-factor, turns out, would be a new defensive coordinator.
WITH MICHIGAN STRUGGLING in 2020 and criticism mounting for coach Jim Harbaugh, it was clear the Wolverines needed a shift to their coaching staff. Parting with defensive coordinator Don Brown, Harbaugh hired Mike Macdonald from the Baltimore Ravens, where he worked under his brother John Harbaugh.
From the outset, players responded to the 34-year-old Macdonald, thanks to both his youthful energy and willingness to connect about more than just Xs and Os.
“He just made the game fun again,” Ojabo said.
Macdonald saw Ojabo could be a pass-rushing force opposite Hutchinson, the entrenched starter at defensive end, after all the work the two put in during the offseason. During fall camp, defensive coaches decided to put Ojabo in the same meeting room as Hutchinson.
“That is where this whole thing started,” Chris Hutchinson said.
“From talking to Coach Macdonald, they recognized they had a guy who’s got a lot of raw ability, but hasn’t really been able to put it on the field and hasn’t really played a whole bunch,” he continued. “So they were doing everything they could to get David the exposure he needed to doing things the right way. To his credit, he accepted every challenge. Every time he could get around Aidan, they were always around each other. You hear Coach Macdonald say, ‘He was soaking it in like a sponge.'”
The turning point came against Wisconsin on Oct. 2. Ojabo had a career-high 2.5 sacks and seven tackles, and suddenly, it was not only Hutchinson who could sack the quarterback. When the season began, Hutchinson consistently faced double-teams as the best player on the line. But as Ojabo started to emerge and become a force in his own right, teams had to start making tough decisions about how to try to slow both down.
“It’s allowed Aidan some freedom, and the both of them have complemented each other, because if you leave them single-blocked, you’re asking for some problems,” Chris Hutchinson said. “As much as Aidan has helped Ojabo, I think the reverse has been very positive as well, because it’s easy to take one dominant rusher out of the way. But when you have two guys in there, on the edges, it makes it a lot more challenging.”
Beyond sacking the quarterback, Ojabo has wreaked havoc in the backfield in general, forcing a school-record five fumbles with a career-high 11 sacks. And he has only started six games this season.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson set a single-season school record with 14 sacks, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and is in line to potentially be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
“To see David’s growth since I’ve known him has been really impressive, and it’s a tribute to him,” Macdonald said. “I think he saw how Aidan approached everything and the success that he was having and he realized what it took to be great. The chemistry is real out there.”
Ojabo described their chemistry this way, “It was a smart thing to do, to have someone to follow, and it’s translated throughout the season. We just feed off each other. You go up, I go under, you go under, I go up. We just do our thing.”
It goes back to their similarities. Their approach is nearly identical, and that has become obvious to opposing coaches as they attempt to come up with a game plan that actually works.
This week, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he spoke to coaches who have already played Michigan, and “one of the first things they talk about is, ‘We didn’t take into account how hard they played, how much effort, how much want-to, how much desire.’ Those two guys just [have] tremendous want-to — you can tell they push each other.”
OJABO’S TRANSFORMATION OVER the past five years from high school basketball standout to possible top 10 NFL draft pick has been both dramatic and sudden. But it’s not a huge surprise to his parents, who concede their son has always had a knack for picking things up quickly — from musical instruments to sports. The biggest surprise is how quickly it all happened this year, because Ojabo had never really had the opportunity to put it all together.
Ngor and Victor traveled from Scotland to Michigan for the Ohio State game, the first time they got to see their son play college football in person. They described the atmosphere as “electric” because you simply cannot appreciate the crowd size or the noise while watching from a screen at home.
For the Orange Bowl, Ngor and Victor will watch from home in Scotland with Ojabo’s younger sister, Victoria, in the wee hours of the morning (it’s a five-hour time difference). His older brother, Victor, made the trip to South Florida for his first chance to see his brother play a college football game.
“It’s going to be surreal,” Victor Ojabo said before flying out. “Being in Miami, that’s when it’s going to hit home, just the scale of everything that’s going on. I’ve always known he’s the type of person that can achieve whatever he wants to put his mind to. Since he’s been young, he’s always been able to step up to the moment and handle the pressure.”
Ojabo will have a decision to make about his future once this season ends. On the latest ESPN NFL draft Big Board, Mel Kiper Jr. has Hutchinson ranked No. 1, and Ojabo at No. 9 overall. But nobody is giving hints about what Ojabo might do.
“It’s his decision,” said his dad, Victor. “It’s not a parents’ decision, and whichever way he goes, whether he wants to stay another year, whether he declares, we support his decision.”
Regardless if he decides to join Hutchinson in the draft or wait, the pair has put together seasons to remember. Some four months ago, nobody outside Ann Arbor could have imagined that.
“It’s just perseverance,” Ojabo said. “Just knowing that at some point something’s going to break through. You got to find a way.
“It hasn’t surprised me because at the end of the day, I know the work I put in.”