Adewale Ojomo: The would-be Giant who found a way to flash

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Adewale Ojomo. (nfl.com)
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As a final referendum on the team’s starting units before the real games, the fourth preseason game is at best a snooze, and at worst a cynical rip-off of season ticket holders who pay full price to watch the starters try not to injure themselves for series or two.

But looked at as a battle for jobs, a last chance for players to lock down a $390,000 salary as opposed to finding themselves unemployed come Friday when final cuts are announced, it can be riveting.

Take rookie defensive end Adewale Ojomo, out of the University of Miami, whose signing with the Giants in May as an undrafted free agent was acknowledged by approximately no one.

Ojomo had been impressive in preseason: He had a team-high three sacks in his last two games heading into yesterday, thus putting himself in consideration for one of the small handful of up-for-grabs roster spots. He had flashed some things these preseason, in the lexicon. The word choice is significant here: Amid the mass of football fodder in these preseason games, coaches are looking for anything that sparks.

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GUYS LIKE OJOMO ARE ANXIOUS TO FLASH. Sometimes they're too anxious.

On his first play during Wednesday night’s game against the Patriots, as a member of the punt return team, Ojomo got overzealous with his blocking assignment and blocked a man in the back. Fortunately for him, the ever-hesitant replacement officials swallowed their whistles. No foul, no harm.

Overeagerness got the better of Ojomo again on his first play on defense, on New England’s third series of the night. On a counter play, Ojomo pursued down the line and abandoned his position, thus allowing the Patriots’ running back to loop around him when he cut back. The play went for a seven-yard gain, and it was Ojomo’s fault.

But three plays later, a redemptive flash. On a pass rush, he got a step on the man blocking him, and then used excellent hand-technique to get beyond him. He then cut back hard in the direction of quarterback Ryan Mallett, who had stepped up in the pocket, and got a piece of Mallett’s arm to force a bad throw. It didn’t count as a sack, but Ojomo had come as close as possible to the strip sack, the Holy Grail for pass rushers.

Moments later, a tweet from one @ofuentes27 popped onto the NBC screen: “Ojomo looks like a real diamond in the rough.”

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, OJOMO HAD STOOD AT HIS LOCKER and tickled reporters with an arresting, matter-of-fact self-confidence. Was he surprised to be the Giants’ preseason leader in sacks, he was asked?

No, he wasn’t, he said with a perfectly straight face and without a hint of cocky-kid brashness.

He added, earnestly somehow, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I went out and had a couple more sacks this week.”

All this from a guy who had amassed a mere 9.5 sacks in college.

Ojomo’s career at Miami had been star-crossed. He redshirted his freshman year in 2007 but then had to sit out another year in 2009 with a broken jaw, the result of what his coach termed locker room “horsing around.” (According to rumor, some new jack walk-on endeavored to prove his toughness by taking a swing at Ojomo.)

He was a regular starter by 2011, but missed the first game on suspension for accepting an invitation for a dinner at Smith & Wollensky from Nevin Shapiro, the now-infamous Miami booster and hanger-on.

He switched between defensive tackle and defensive end last year, amassing only 1.5 sacks. Feeling he was better than that, and that he could prove something to N.F.L. scouts in another year of college football, he petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. He was denied, and thus forced to enter the draft with an undistinguished resume.

“Ojomo was a solid college player who possesses a linebacker’s body with defensive lineman speed,” his unflattering scouting profile at Sports Illustrated said. He was projected to be bypassed in the draft, which is exactly what happened.

LAST NIGHT WAS OJOMO'S LAST CHANCE to submit evidence that all of that was untrue, that the mere “solid college player” he had been at Miami was not the best version of himself.

Two drives later on a pass play, he bullrushed the man blocking him, who gave ground with surprising ease.

It seemed too good to be true. And it was. This play was a screen pass, on which the offensive lineman had intentionally backed off in order to compel Ojomo to take himself out of the play. Ojomo complied, thus helping to enable the Patriots’ running back to be wide open on the edge.

But Mallett’s pass was short, and Ojomo’s gaffe came and went without fanfare.

WHEN YOU'RE IN THE NERVE-WRACKING POSITION of trying to make an N.F.L. roster, what you do is really no more important than what the guys competing for your roster spot do. It’s a zero-sum game, during which it’s in your interest to have guys who you’ve probably developed friendships with, and often who you’re on the field with during games, fail.

Ojomo faces two competitors for what appears to be only one defensive end roster spot: Third-year man Adrian Tracy, who hasn’t shown much to fans but who the coaching staff is said to be fond of, and fellow rookie Matt Broha.

Tracy has a mild hamstring injury, and missed both last night’s game and the game before. Broha played a lot last night though, often at the same time as Ojomo. He teamed up with another young defensive end, Craig Marshall (who will likely be cut) on a sack, but then registered one of his own.

A sack is a sack, but in preseason, the process counts as much as the result. And on this score, Ojomo’s near-sack in the first quarter was much more impressive than Broha’s 1.5 sacks.

Both of Broha’s sacks came in the second quarter. The first half-sack came on a busted Patriots play of the sort much more common in the fourth preseason game than in a regular season one. The second sack came on a play that was designed to be a quick slant to the wide receiver, but was foiled because the Giants had a defender fortuitously positioned in the passing lane for which the play was designed.

On the play, Broha hurdled a cut block designed more to slow him down than to block him. He then awkwardly ran into the quarterback, Mallett, but slowed up at the last instant for fear of a roughing penalty because he wasn’t sure whether Mallett had released the ball. Mallett went down.

IT SO HAPPENED THAT LAST NIGHT, THE GIANTS OFFENSE--both the Eli Manning- and David Carr-led versions--couldn’t move the ball, especially in the first half.

This gave the Patriots plenty of possessions and consistently good field position. On their fifth possession of the first half, they strung together several first downs to get to the Giants’ 10 yard-line. On a first down running play, Ojomo crashed down from his end position and laid a clean hit on the running back, but the running back’s forward momentum carried them both four yards downfield.

It was sort of impressive: Good for Ojomo for having the quickness to crash down on the runner, but bad for Ojomo for allowing the runner to drag him four yards.

Still, the sound of pads popping in the late summer night was enough impress broadcast analyst Carl Banks:

“Well I’ll tell you, Ojomo will show up in the film session when coaches are evaluating,” the star Giants linebacker from their 1986 and 1990 Super Bowl teams said.

“He finds a way to be around the ball quite a bit.”

The Giants held the Patriots to a field goal on the drive. After several more stalemate drives by both teams, the Patriots took a 3-0 lead into halftime.

THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE HAD SEVEN POSSESSIONS IN THE FIRST half, meaning that guys like Ojomo had plenty of chances to flash. In the third quarter, two long Giants drives sandwiching a short Patriots’ drive meant the opposite. Ojomo wasn’t on the field for a single play that quarter.

He had played a good game to that point, but the Ojomos of the world are never in a position to rest on their laurels. Jose Reyes’ sitting out his last at bats to clinch the batting title this is not. They need to keep flashing, and they need opportunities to do so.

Had he flashed enough? Maybe or maybe not for the Giants, but probably for another team that isn’t as embarrassingly rich at defensive end position.

This factors into the Giants’ calculation: If they attempted to stash him on the practice squad, it would give other teams the right to claim him for their active rosters. Ojomo’s play all preseason had made it likely that a team would claim him. For the Giants, it appears that there’s no practice-squad middle ground with Ojomo: They’ll either keep or lose him.

Of course, Ojomo and his ilk always prefer to make their initial teams’ decisions easy. So when he finally got back on the field with around 13 minutes to go in the game, with the Patriots in the shadow of their own endzone, he made his most impressive play of the night:

On a Patriots outside run, Ojomo got perfect outside positioning on the lineman assigned to block him. He then took on a block from the oncoming fullback, but still maintained his positioning, giving the running back nowhere to run but sideways while two men tried in vain to clear a lane by pushing Ojomo out of the way. “Stringing out the play,” it’s called, and Ojomo kept at it until a gaggle of Giants defenders arrived to tackle the runner for a 1-yard-loss.

Ojomo leapt over the crashing pile of bodies that marked the end of the play, partly to protect his ankles but also partly in exultation: He had just taken another big step toward a job with the Giants.

The camera trained on him as he looped into the endzone in solo celebration, as if he had just scored a touchdown: Offensive players get to celebrate their great plays in the endzone, and Ojomo’s version as a defensive player, despite yielding no points, was no less worthy.

But had that play, and everything else, been enough?

As if determined to put the question to rest, Ojomo ended his 2012 preseason with a flourish.

With the game still tied at 3-3, and with coaches, fans, announcers, and established players alike dreading the possibility of overtime, the Patriots took possession in their own territory with two-and-a-half minutes remaining.

On their first play, Ojomo dashed around his man just like he did earlier in the game. Only this time, he got to the quarterback a split second earlier, forcing a fumble that the Giants recovered in field goal range, and the Giants’ subsequent field goal won the game and averted overtime.

The strip sack, on which the defensive player uses his right arm like a club to knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hand, has a special legacy with the Giants: The move was pioneered by Lawrence Taylor in the early ‘80s, and has been passed down through generations of Giants’ pass rushers, from Michael Strahan to Osi Umenyiora to Jason Pierre-Paul.

It’s a celebrated line, and while it would be ridiculous to put Ojomo’s name on that list, it seems likely now that he’ll at least have the chance to join it.

Right after Ojomo’s sack, Banks, Taylor’s longtime teammate, declared, “I’ll tell you what: This Ojomo kid is gonna factor on this roster.”