Little Big Man

FAYETTEVILLE -- Sam Olajubutu was showing off the huge blue and white rug hanging from his bedroom wall that read "LaGrange Grangers ... 14-0 ... State Champs," when Arkansas teammate Keith Jackson busted through the door and started ragging on the linebacker last week.

"What in the world is a Granger anyway?" Jackson smirked.

"That's what they always ask," Olajubutu said. "But we showed them. They all found out real quick."

Opponents have been finding out just as quickly about Olajubutu, a junior from LaGrange, Ga. (home of the Grangers, which are farmers).

After starting his career in relative obscurity, Olajubutu earned some national notoriety when his name was added to the Lombardi Award Watch List on Monday. The award is presented to the nation's top lineman and includes any player who lines up within five yards (like a linebacker) of the line of scrimmage.

The selection committee couldn't overlook Olajubutu any longer. He ranks second in the Southeastern Conference with 43 tackles, according to press box statistics. Arkansas coaches have credited Olajubutu with 53 tackles after reviewing game film.

No matter the number, Olajubutu has proven his value to the Razorbacks with senior linebacker Pierre Brown sidelined by a knee injury the past two games. Olajubutu put the defense on his shoulders and turned in consecutive, double-digit tackle performances against Southern California and Alabama.

"Sam is probably the brightest part of our defense," said defensive coordinator Reggie Herring. "He's been consistent since Day 1. Regardless of our record, he's been a guy that's really been our spiritual leader on the field. He's got great playmaking skills, tenacity and a great desire to play football."

At 5-foot-9, 227 pounds, he's the shortest starting linebacker in the league. But Olajubutu, whose name is of Nigerian decent, has been a nightmare for opponents since making his first start during a 34-31 double overtime win at Alabama in 2003.

"He's so hard to block, it's unbelievable," said Hogs center Kyle Roper. "He's flying all over the place so fast and coming at you so low, then on top of that, he's just got so much explosion. When he hits you, it's hard to stay up.

"His size is definitely an advantage for him. It's impossible to get lower than him and with the power he brings with it, he's just amazing."

When he's not eluding blockers and hitting quarterbacks (he leads the team with two sacks and five quarterback hurries), Olajubutu is cracking jokes.

And nobody is safe from his one-liners. Olajubutu's pokes fun at teammates, their girlfriends and even their family members. If somebody is missing a few teeth, he'll say it looks like they've been "eating frozen Now-And-Laters (a chewy candy)."

"People think he's quiet and shy, but he's a real character," said tight end Wes Murphy. "Around the public, he is quiet, but once you get him behind closed doors, he's real wild. He's got a joke about everybody.

"He thinks he's the king of jokes."

As strange as it sounds, Olajubutu's wit can be uplifting.

"He's always keeping you on your toes by saying something that you don't really expect," said cornerback Darius Vinnett. "If you come out to practice here and you're having a bad day or something, he kind of senses that and it doesn't take long before he'll have you laughing."

Behind the closed doors of his off-campus apartment, Olajubutu's favorite targets are his roommate, free safety Randy Kelley, and Jackson, who lives nearby and often barbecues chicken on Olajubutu's porch on the team's off days.

Around his pad, there's not much on the walls other than the Grangers' rug and a few "Muscle Men" of the Razorbacks posters, which feature Olajubutu and several other shirtless, chiseled teammates in a weight room pose.

A pair of ceramic footballs rest above the television, which usually has ESPN or a movie running. Olajubutu's favorite is the comedy 'Life' with Martin Lawrence.

After a recent practice, Olajubutu, wearing a white tank top and jean shorts that hung past his knees, kicked back on his couch, which is covered by a massive red and white Razorbacks blanket.

"This is all I need right here," said Olajubutu, rubbing his head while looking around his simple living room. "I'm kind of the plain, laid-back type."

After sneaking around Olajubutu and into a cupboard at the back of the kitchen, Jackson began opening a Little Debbie snack cake before asking if it was 'OK' that he ate one.

Olajubutu chuckled.

"He always comes over here, eating up everything and drinking up everything," said Olajubutu, shaking his head as Jackson smiled while stealing a sip of Gatorade to wash down the snack. "I've got to keep him fed because he's the one holding the (offensive) guard off me."

Jackson, a starting defensive tackle, fired back.

"That's why he's making all these plays," Jackson said.

Kelley was stretched out on a nearby sofa and did his best to stay out of it. See, he admires Olajubutu no matter how many times his roommate jokes about his dreadlocks or whatever.

"He's a great person," Kelley said. "I look up to him even though I'm older. He may not know it, but I respect him a lot and look up to him a lot.

"I don't tell him that, but he's a really good friend to have."

A friend who makes enemies out of opponents on Saturdays. Teammates frequently use Olajubutu's lack of height (they say he's really only 5-7) as a way to counter his jokes. But when an opponent tries it, the Hogs' little big man becomes enraged.

"On the field man, if they say something about his height, that just makes him go nuts," said Hogs receiver Dedrick Poole. "If you go back and watch the Vanderbilt game, there was a 6-4 receiver and Sam knocked the ball down and 'Butu was like, 'You ain't gettin' nothing.' And the receiver was like, 'Man, how tall are you?'

"I wish I could say what 'Butu said in return, but I can't really repeat it. It was clear that it ticked him off pretty bad."

That's the kind of intensity Herring loves as much as watching Olajubutu light up a ball carrier like a Roman Candle.

"Maybe that's what drives him," Herring said. "He's been told all his life that he's too small, that he can't this and he can't that. To me, maybe there's just this special burn inside of him that makes him go that you wish every player here had. That want to and that desire, he has definitely got what it takes right now."

As a high school senior, Olajubutu was named Georgia's Class 3A Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 170 tackles. Few major colleges showed interest until late in the process when Arkansas and Mississippi State offered scholarships.

"It motivated me if anything," Olajubutu said. "It makes me want to get out here and show everybody what I can do. Makes me want it more. It does make me mad a little bit, but I've already shown a little bit of what I can do, so it doesn't matter to me what anybody says about my size."

Even home state schools Georgia and Georgia Tech figured Olajubutu was too small to play linebacker at the Division I level.

"They didn't recruit me," Olajubutu said. "I guess they didn't know who I was at the time."

Few knew who the Grangers were, either. But, just like high school, Arkansas' opponents are find out about Olajubutu real quick.

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