The 2021 NFL Draft is deep at the EDGE position, but if there’s an odds-on favorite to be the first one to hear his name called, Azeez Ojulari, out of Georgia, has as good of a chance as anyone.
Ojulari is seen by many as an exciting and ascending player. Turn the tape on and his skill-set jumps off the screen. Ojulari possesses a refined skill set that should really thrive at the next level. Pair that with his overall athleticism and it’s easy to see why Ojulari may be the best EDGE rusher in this draft class.
Ojulari spoke exclusively with The Draft Network to discuss his familiar upbringing, why he took such a big step forward in 2020, his diverse pass rush arsenal, how he developed such a physical mindset, and why he’ll make such a big impact at the next level.
JM: I want to start with a little family history. Your grandfather, Prince Twins Seven-Seven was an incredible man. He was a Nigerian prince that toured the world as an artist. He made many contributions to African art and culture. What do you most recall about him and your upbringing in general?
AO: He loved coming to visit us. He would take care of us. Whenever he was in town, he wanted to spend every second with his grandchildren. He had a lot of fun with us. We had a great time together. I loved being around him. He was always full of so much positive energy. Even though we were little kids that definitely annoyed him, he loved us very much (laughs). He really loved us. I know that with my entire heart. He was very happy to be around us.
JM: That’s great. Your parents are very big on education. They never really thought about playing football. What are some of the most important lessons they taught you growing up?
AO: They always taught me to be myself. They always told me, whatever it is you choose to do, just make sure you work hard at it. They encouraged me to chase my dreams no matter what. They taught me to never listen to anybody that says you can’t do something. I always believed in God. I always chased my dreams. Everything always works itself out.
JM: They sound like wonderful people. You tore your ACL in high school. Despite the injury, Georgia decided to honor their scholarship offer to you. You know as well as I do that more often than not, that offer goes away when a high school player suffers a serious injury. What did that tell you about their commitment to you?
AO: That’s when I knew that they really loved me. I knew it was real. It was genuine. It’s been real ever since they recruited me. We built a solid foundation together. I became close with the entire coaching staff. Everything that I did throughout my high school career, they had to take that risk (laughs). They knew what they were getting in me. It was a hometown thing.
JM: I’m going to fast forward a bit. The draft is fast approaching now. Looking at your most recent body of work, your game took a huge step forward in 2020. I saw a much more refined player this past season. What changed for you this past year?
AO: I really just grew as a player. It was natural development. I took that next step. In 2019, I was playing a little too slow. I was taking my time to read things and I would diagnose what to do. I was just a tick late on a lot of things in 2019. In 2020, I learned how to just relax and play my game. I became relentless. I was a different beast this past year. I played like my hair was on fire.
JM: You were one of the leaders on that defense. How can that experience serve you well going forward?
AO: It was great. Knowing that my teammates looked up to me, that meant everything. They counted on me. I couldn’t let them down. I had the respect of everybody in that locker room. I always wanted to do everything I could for my team. I knew that I had their support; that allowed me to play free and fast. You play with a lot of confidence when you know your teammates trust you. They had my back no matter what. I tried to lead the team. I did what I do best. I tried to get the best out of everybody.
JM: I’m excited to talk about your pass rush arsenal. Studying your tape was one of my most fun experiences I’ve had this cycle. You have a diverse arsenal. I’m not sure there’s a better edge rusher in this class. What are some of your go-to moves and counters?
AO: My saying is, “Beat the hands, beat the man.” That sticks with me. That’s what I go by. I know that if I beat the hands, I beat the man. I’m always trying to rush right through you. Those guys are 300 pounds and we as edge rushers weigh less than them (laughs). I keep it simple. I don’t do anything too crazy. I’m not the guy that has 1,000 moves in his arsenal. That’s not me.
I focus on what works. My favorite move, I call that the “long-two.” It’s a long arm with a club coming off of it. I love getting after the quarterback. Beat the hands, beat the man. My bend is crazy. I get after the QB.
JM: I love that. What’s your favorite part of playing the EDGE position?
AO: I love making those big impact plays. The game-changing ones. We get those opportunities at the EDGE position. Sacks, strip sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles; we get so many opportunities to change the course of a game. Beating tackles around the edge in the passing game is the greatest feeling. We can make big plays in the run game as well. I love showcasing how athletic I am. I’m a great player and I’m going to make it known.
JM: Did you see Carl Lawson watching your film on Twitter? That was great.
AO: No, I actually didn’t. What did he say?
JM: It happened back in February. He was commenting on some of your film. He said that your cross chop is much better than his. It reminded him of Chandler Jones.
AO: Yeah, that’s awesome. He’s one of the best pass rushers in the league. That’s a huge compliment right there. I respect that. I need to look that up. I must have missed it.
JM: Is there one NFL pass rusher that you would love to sit down and talk ball with?
AO: I have a couple. I would say, Bud Dupree, [Shaquil] Barrett, and Von Miller. It would be great to connect with any of those guys.
JM: It’s interesting that Dupree was the first name that came out of your mouth. I don’t always hear that one. He’s starting to get more respect around the league.
AO: He’s so relentless. He plays the game like a beast. He’s incredibly physical. You can never question his effort. He’s always getting after the quarterback off the edge. He can bend. He’s not just a pass rusher either. He can stop the run as good as any edge defender. He’s an all-around player. I love how he plays the game.
JM: I love that. Speaking of Dupree and his effort, when I turn the tape on, I never see you let up either. I can’t recall scouting your tape and ever feeling like you took a play off.
AO: That comes from the heart. It comes from the love of the game. I wanna make those big impact plays every time I step onto the field. You never know when your chance is gonna come. You can win the game for your team on any given play. I can’t let up. I have to keep searching for my moment. I’m trying to create havoc in the backfield. I always give it 100% no matter what the situation is. You just never know.
JM: Who are some of the best offensive tackles you’ve ever gone up against?
AO: My former teammate, Andrew Thomas (laughs). We used to go to battle every single day at practice. He made me a better player. He’s a great player. He’s very athletic. I’ll give you an opponent as well. Alex Leatherwood from Alabama. He’s also very athletic. He has quick feet. Those two guys were the best ones I’ve ever seen personally.
JM: Those are two great players. Do you have a favorite moment in a Georgia jersey?
AO: I’d have to point to the Peach Bowl really. I went out with a bang. It was my last game in a Georgia jersey. I had to do it big. I finished with three sacks. They named me the Peach Bowl MVP. It was surreal. I felt like I went out the right way, you know? I helped lead the Georgia Bulldogs. That was a great game and moment for me.
JM: You were incredible in that game. You’ve spent the last few months meeting with NFL teams via Zoom. What’s that process like?
AO: The process is going well. I’ve hopped on Zoom with a bunch of teams. It’s going great. Just know that I’ve been speaking with a lot of teams (laughs). I can’t share which ones; just know that I’ve been pretty busy. There’s been plenty of teams. We’ve been going through a lot of my 2020 film. I’m watching their defense. We’re trying to build relationships. We’re all trying to get to know one another.
JM: There’s a lot of interest in you and it’s easy to see why. I’ve really appreciated your time today. In closing, when a team spends a first-round pick on Azeez Ojulari, what kind of player are they getting?
AO: They’re getting the best pass rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft. I can do it all. I play all three phases. I can rush the passer, I can stop the run and I can even drop in coverage too. I can play special teams. I’m relentless. Effort is never a question. I can get after the quarterback. I can force fumbles. I can make those big impact plays. I’m an all-around defender. I really feel like I’m the best EDGE in this class.