There’s a photo in the UCLA locker room that brings back nothing but bad memories for Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
The play pictured is from UCLA’s win over Nebraska in 2012, a play which sent the redshirt senior defensive end’s career plan off the rails.
“It was like a third and one and I had to stop; there was like three guys on top of me, just extended my hip overboard and I felt it, the tear,” Odighizuwa recalled. “I thought it was just a pain, but the next day I could barely move my leg.”
The pain, which Odighizuwa described as a traumatic tear to the right side of his hip, required surgery in the offseason, and when his left hip began to wear out as well, he needed surgery again, forcing him to miss the entirety of the 2013 season.
Now back on the field, Odighizuwa’s hard work over the past 15 months rehabilitating and strengthening his body has paid off, and he has shined throughout UCLA’s spring practices.
But Odighizuwa’s rehab process was more than just making sure his body was healthy; he also had to take care of his mind.
Having not played since the Holiday Bowl against Baylor on Dec. 27, 2012, Odighizuwa admitted to some anxiety about his return to spring practice this year.
“I was definitely concerned, ’cause a year is the longest I’ve sat out since like middle school in an organized sport, so it was definitely something that I was conscious about how I would fit right back in and how would things work out,” Odighizuwa said.
While getting his mind in the right place to return to football, he continued to sharpen it so he could excel this season.
“I was studying film, studying offensive line, studying defensive ends, studying in how to make sure I play with great technique, become a great pass rusher,” Odighizuwa said. “So I was very happy when I got back because of the mental standpoint; it allowed me to play a lot faster.”
Physically, Odighizuwa said he’s better than he was even before his injury. After his surgery, he didn’t lose a pound and kept his muscle mass, allowing him to spend his time off getting better, not just getting back to what he was.
“For me, my motto was, ‘Get back like I never left,’” Odighizuwa said. “I didn’t want to take a step backwards on the field.”
Accomplishing that meant working every day with trainers and physical therapists, meeting frequently with coaches – and just a little bit of motivation. Odighizuwa said he drew inspiration from watching NFL players, such as Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, who returned from major injuries. But a more familiar name provided the model that Odighizuwa needed.
“I always think of a guy like (former UCLA defensive end) Datone (Jones) who had a similar situation,” Odighizuwa said of his former teammate, who battled back from a similar injury and was drafted last year.
“Just to see it all pay off for him in his last year of eligibility and him to play at a high level, it just it was a testament of his hard work and I was right there with him. He worked super hard and everything paid off for him. So for me, I knew that if I wanted to be there, that I need to do the same exact thing.”
While Odighizuwa seems primed for individual success this season, he and the Bruins are most excited for what he can bring to the team, most notably, his veteran leadership.
“Getting a guy like Owa back, a fifth-year senior, that’s a big deal for us. I don’t think it can be overstated,” said coach Jim Mora.
Odighizuwa has already started sharing his knowledge, taking players like sophomore defensive tackle Kenny Clark under his wing last season. Odighizuwa said the two watched film together and he shared tips with Clark.
The Bruins will look to Odighizuwa to fill not only the leadership void, but also the hole left in UCLA’s pass rush. With the departure of outside linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham, who combined to register 22 of UCLA’s 32 sacks last season, the burden of pressuring opposing quarterbacks could fall on Odighizuwa’s broad shoulders.
“The beauty of that is that you have this group of young guys that is so eager, so fired up about the opportunity to compete,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “It’ll be fun because the cream always rises.”
Odighizuwa has played the part of the cream this spring, looking dominant in one-on-one drills against offensive linemen. With his imposing presence returned to the defensive line, the unit is primed for a standout season, something Odighizuwa thinks is the key to a strong defense for UCLA this season.
“I always told our guys, ‘Everything starts from the inside out,’” Odighizuwa said. “I always say, ‘If we have good interior play or if our two D-tackles are playing great, it’s gonna help the ends and it’s gonna help the defense overall,’ and that’s what we’re seeing this spring.”