Ifeadi Odenigbo’s path, from Vikings seventh-round pick to his first NFL sack Sunday against the Giants, went something like this:
2017: Get released at the end of training camp; start the year on the practice squad modeling opposing defenses on the scout team. Gain 20 pounds after playing the part of a 3-4 defensive end effectively enough on the scout team that coaches decide to move you full-time to defensive tackle.
2018: Move back to defensive end after 2018 sixth-rounder Ade Aruna injured his knee. Get cut, lose 20 pounds while playing defensive end on Cleveland and Arizona’s practice squads.
2019: Return to Minnesota, play both defensive end and defensive tackle without gaining extra weight, make the 53-man roster for the first time and record first sack as a defensive tackle.
Got all that?
Describing the seventh-round pick’s route to the active roster as circuitous is probably still putting it mildly, but Odenigbo has found a role with the team that drafted him, even if it took some trial, error, diet changes and new ZIP codes to get there.
“I think most importantly, I’ve just gotten comfortable since I’ve been here,” Odenigbo said. “And now that I’m comfortable with the defense, I’m comfortable with the coaching, I’m able to play a lot faster now.”
The tutelage of defensive line coach Andre Patterson and assistant defensive line coach Rob Rodriguez, Odenigbo said, is what has helped him to get a handle on two positions even though he’s back down around 260 pounds, after topping out at 278 while spending an offseason “pounding down food” in an effort to bulk up for the demands of defensive tackle. He is playing the run more effectively than he did at Northwestern, when he developed a reputation as something of a one-dimensional pass rusher, and has played in all five games this season after being active just once in his NFL career before this season.
“I’m kind of actually smaller than I was in college, but this kind of goes to how your technique can improve,” he said. “My hand placement, my technique, the little, meticulous things actually improve, and it showed off me playing more physical, more powerful. When I first got here, I was on the stiffer side. So even though I was trying to do things, my hand placement wasn’t as efficient. Having that extra weight, you just get gassed, and you start feeling it in your knees. My technique has improved so much that the weight’s not an issue. Guys like Everson [Griffen] — he came in here at 275, and now he’s mid-260s.
“Once you start to become technically sound, you’re more efficient. And when you’re more efficient, you don’t have to put on the extra weight, because I think at the end of the day, speed kills.”
Odenigbo’s latest stint with the Vikings has also reacquainted him with a childhood friend: Rookie tackle Oli Udoh, who attended the same elementary and middle school as Odenigbo and his younger brother Tito (who was on the Vikings roster through training camp). Their families were close as part of the Nigerian community in Centerville, Ohio, where wrestling matches between the Odenigbo brothers and the two Udoh brothers were commonplace at community events there.
“The age group was kind of my older brother, Ifeadi, me and Tito,” Udoh said. “We were all just crazy — just jumping around outside and playing. We’d have low-key little mini-boxing things, where we’d put on boxing gloves and stuff like that.”
The families lost touch after Udoh moved to North Carolina. When Udoh prepared for the combine this spring, Odenigbo commented on one of his social media posts, “See you when you get to the league.” The Vikings took Udoh in the seventh round this spring, and the two former classmates saw each other for the first time in years.
“It’s awesome, just being able to get each other better,” Udoh said. “He’s always one of the guys who’s telling me, ‘This is one thing you can work on,’ based on us going against each other. I think that’s honestly awesome, that I come into a program and he’s in my ear.”
The reunion with Udoh is another twist to a career that looked like it might not blossom in Minnesota. But after an unlikely path to this point, Odenigbo has found a role.
“I remember toward the end of last season when he was on the scout team, he was making those guys on the other side of the ball work really, really hard,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He worked real hard in the offseason, kept getting stronger and more athletic. He came in here with a purpose of he was going to make this team and try to help us win. He’s done a nice job.”