The Giants annual draft class is consistently among the most-watched players during training camp.
But with first-rounder Kadarius Toney still working his way back from the COVID-19 list and third-rounder Aaron Robinson and fourth-rounder Elerson Smith dealing with ailments, second-round edge rusher Azeez Ojulari is currently the highest-drafted rookie on the field and one who is off to a very positive start.
The Giants are counting on Ojulari to help turbocharge the pass rush and hopefully become their first successful homegrown pass rusher since Jason Pierre-Paul.
Ojulari certainly has the background to live up to such lofty expectations. In three seasons for the University of Georgia, he delivered 68 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles, and 15 sacks. Last season, he led the SEC in sacks (9.5) and forced fumbles (4) and finished second in the conference in tackles for a loss (13).
Although the Giants have yet to practice in pads—they’ll do so beginning Tuesday—Ojulari has already been drawing some early positive looks against left tackle Andrew Thomas, who was also his teammate at Georgia.
“I’m just trying to grow every single day, you know?” Ojulari said Monday. “Come out here every day, learn from the older guys, you know? Just continue to get better every single day, just one percent better every day.”
Ojulari, Thomas, and tight end Evan Engram have been among the Giants players who spent the off-season training at Pinnacle Performance Center in Atlanta. The rookie credits his strong start to his off-season conditioning work done in anticipation of a long and grueling training camp.
“I’d say just staying in shape, keeping that up and getting in better shape,” he said when asked where he’s made the most strides. “I just feel like I’m getting better with that.”
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Ojulari’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed by head coach Joe Judge.
“The biggest thing for Azeez right now is he’s shown us a lot of jumps in how he came in in shape in training camp,” he said. “When we saw him in the spring, like all rookies, they come in, and they’re not ready to go. That was evident with the way some of those guys handled the conditioning throughout practice in the spring.
“You watch him out there throughout the duration of practice of maintaining his conditioning level, conditioning at the end of practice, where he is in the pack as far as running. He’s not towards the back, he’s getting up there towards the front, so the demonstration of how he’s working and got himself in physical shape to come in has helped him to this point.”
It’s also been helpful for Ojulari to get whatever reps he can against Thomas, whom he practiced against at Georgia, and to have Lorenzo Carter, a familiar face, in the meeting room.
“The real test will be when the pads come on, but I’d say in terms of his mental understanding of the system and schemes, he’s made progress in that,” said Judge.
“There’s some similarities to the defense with what he played in college. It’s not the same, but there’s similarities and I think that gives him a little bit of a jump verbiage-wise or scheme understanding-wise. It’s something that he can relate to, something he’s done in the past.”
Ojulari said he’s been taking things day by day and that he doesn’t have specific number-driven goals in mind just yet.
“I’m just trying to come in, do what the coaches want me to do, get better, play my role, you know?” he said. “If the opportunity comes, I’ll play to the best of my ability—just try to make as many plays as I can, just go all out for the team.”