With the departure of so many talented athletes to the NFL after last season, the Michigan defense entered the 2007 campaign needing contributions from a number of inexperienced players. One such player was/is redshirt freshman linebacker Obi Ezeh. The 6-2, 243-pound youngster reminds many observers of the man he has been charged with replacing. They are similar in stature and athleticism, wear the same number (45), and hail from the same home town (Grand Rapids, MI). The similarities in performance, however, haven’t been there. Not yet anyway.
The excited anticipation over Ezeh becoming a “Harris-type of player” is palpable, but the process involved in reaching that point has its share of obstacles. The Wolverines’ victory over Northwestern a few weeks back was a prime example of the growing pains that he is weathering through. At the same time, his improvement during that very same contest reminded his head coach of his outstanding potential.
"I thought Obi Ezeh, the first play of the game… which was one of two very disappointing plays… Obi was in a position to make the tackle, and I think we relaxed there,” Michigan headman Lloyd Carr said regarding the 60 yard pass play in which the Wildcat receiver appeared down. “He relaxed, and I think we had another defender relax, and he didn't get the guy on the ground. They were anticipating that he was down and they were concerned about getting a penalty late, but the whistle didn't blow so the ball came out. But I think Obi, as the game went on, got better and better. He's a wonderful athlete. I think he's going to be an outstanding linebacker."
Ezeh’s play didn’t just improve as that game went along, it continued to show growth last week versus Eastern Michigan as well. He turned in a team high nine tackles while also forcing a fumble. It was the type of performance that he wasn’t able to turn in the first week of the season as an opening day starter versus Appalachian State. He was relegated to backup duty the next three weeks behind the more experienced John Thompson. The opportunity to observe his elder teammate from the sideline helped Ezeh get ready for the time when his number was finally called again.
“It really has just been a learning experience,” he said. “I am a young player, so coming out at the beginning of the season… I mean it was just my first game. I did not really feel like I was emotionally ready. But just watching (Thompson) play and just being able to watch him during practice, and just imitate him, it has been a real good thing to do throughout the past couple of weeks. I feel like it has prepared me for when I am out on the field.”
For Ezeh, facing so many spread teams early in the season has made the learning curve a bit steeper. That said, the increasing familiarity with the offense is one of the things that has made him more at ease on the field.
“We have been seeing these offenses a lot more often these days, so I have been getting real comfortable with the spread offenses and making the calls and what not,” Ezeh said. “Seeing as how I am a young player, experience itself is just going to make me more comfortable with the calling the offense and setting up the defense. Really I think the most difficult part is (trying to diagnose plays) while trying to get off of a blocker. All of it is hard, and certain plays come at you. Certain plays you have not seen before. The best part is when the play happens and you have seen the play on film, you have seen the play in practice, and it happens the way that you practice it. But a lot of times it does not happen that way. So you just kind of have to go attack some of the obstacles that you really have not been able to deal with during practice because it is hard to simulate the athletes that they have.”
Even though he is feeling more confident, Ezeh is definitely not under any illusions that he has everything figured out. That’s especially true when it comes to playing the spread.
“You cannot really ever be as ready (for the spread) as you want to be, but you can try to execute all the plays that you see in practice… all the plays that we work on,” he said. “We watch a lot of film and we just try to be as prepared as possible for what we feel the offense is going to bring at us. They are always running a lot of naked plays and hitting the crosser on the second level behind the linebackers, so there is always some aspect to it that they are either going to add or that we have not played well that they are going to try and expose us with. So there is always something. If you feel like you have mastered everything, they are just going to add something else in. That is what offenses do.”
With his game getting better every week, Ezeh is pleased with his progress.
For that matter, he is pleased with the progress of the defense as a whole.
However, he knows that both he and his unit both have a long way to go.
“I am happy with getting the defense lined up quickly because when I am hesitant with my calls, then they are hesitant and it kind of shows,” Ezeh said regarding which part of his development he is most pleased with. I just want to be more of a leader on the field. Be more of a leader and just be able to have fun and play and not worry about, 'am I doing something wrong again?' ”
“We are obviously not where we want to be (as a defense),” he continued. “We want to be in a spot where we can come out and play a full 60 minutes, every play as hard as possible, execute, play physical, play fast and I mean that is hard. The most we can do is get a mindset, get an attitude that we are going to come out and do that and just work towards that every week during practice. We just like to take it one game at a time. Just going back to what happened at the beginning of the season. We really cannot overlook, or undervalue or overvalue teams. So we just got to come in and treat each game like it is the last game that we are going to play. I feel like there is just a mechanism inside of everybody... that you just get that sense of urgency that you've got to make a play and that seems like that has been happening the past couple of weeks. When we need to make a play, the defense has come up with the play and the offense is coming up with plays to put us in position to win the game.”