CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Adewale Ojomo leaned back in his seat and smiled.
Silly as it sounds, that represents progress for the Miami defensive lineman. Such a gesture was impossible for him a year ago.
Ojomo missed Miami’s entire 2009 season after a locker-room fight before the season left him with a broken jaw that needed to be wired shut for nearly two months. He lost 40 pounds during that ordeal, unable to regain the size and strength in time to get back on the field with the Hurricanes.
So when Miami opens this season against Florida A&M on Sept. 2, more than 20 months will have passed since Ojomo played.
“I wouldn’t call it anger. I would call it motivation,” said Ojomo, who grew up in the Miami suburb of Hialeah. “I work harder than ever now and am more determined. I look at things totally different. Sometimes in life, you take things for granted. I don’t take anything for granted. Not one practice, not one weight-room lift, because I don’t have to be there.”
That’s a lesson he learned the hard way.
Miami coach Randy Shannon originally said Ojomo got hurt “horsing around in the locker room with a couple players” last Aug. 16, before it was learned that he was involved in a fight with a walk-on candidate whom the team never identified since that person was not on the roster. The walk-on was quickly dismissed from his tryout.
A day later after the initial diagnosis, the team announced Ojomo had surgery, and an indefinite absence turned into a year-long one.
Now he’s back, and Ojomo — who still will not talk about the specifics of the fight — insists he’s better than ever.
“Ojomo’s just ready to go,” Shannon said this week. “He’s been here. Excited about coming back. He’s going to bring some excitement and he’s grown a lot, mentally and physically.”
The Ojomo situation from a year ago is similar to one that popped up in recent days at Southern California. USC cornerback T.J. Bryant had surgery on his left cheekbone Thursday, about a week after fighting teammate Stanley Havili. Bryant will miss at least three weeks.
“It’s something we’re not excited about right now,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
That matches the sentiment Miami had over the Ojomo matter this time last summer.
As a redshirt freshman in 2008, Ojomo showed signs of serious promise.
Ojomo started three games for Miami that season, with 22 tackles and three sacks, enough to get those around the program to believe that he would be a major contributor in 2009.
They say the same now, even while the defensive line is expected to be a major strength for Miami this season.
“He’s a terror,” fellow defensive lineman Allen Bailey said. “He adds a lot to the D-line. We’re already stacked. He adds a lot more to it. Him being there, adds to the pass rush, adds just another aggressive player. A playmaker.”
It’s telling that Shannon never lost faith in — or respect for — Ojomo in the days and weeks after the fight.
Shannon speaks often of his disdain for distractions, and one of his most cherished philosophies as a head coach is allowing players to police their own locker room. Even after the Ojomo incident, that didn’t change, and Shannon has said in recent weeks he believes the 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior could be a “game-changing” player for Miami this season.
“It’s very encouraging,” Ojomo said. “It lifts my spirit a lot to know that my head coach believes in me. I can’t take it and get complacent. I’ve got to just take it and keep working hard.”
If there was a silver lining to missing a season, Ojomo says it’s that all the little nagging aches and pains football players tend to deal with have gone away.
He became more of a student of the game than ever before, getting a new perspective from the sideline as he kept eyes locked in on Bailey and Andrew Smith, the two guys who spent much of the year in the spot Ojomo thought he’d have in 2009. He watched as much film as he could collect, all those mental reps in practice making his mind — and, presumably, his game — sharper.
“It’s the same situation as Aaron Rodgers watching Brett Favre and being able to learn from that experience he had,” Ojomo said, making a parallel to when Rodgers was Green Bay’s quarterback-in-waiting behind Favre. “It’s pretty much the same situation … watching the good and the bad. You stay fresh. I must say, your legs are lighter. You feel much better.”