Triumph and tragedy - Michigan center Olu Oluwatimi's journey

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WHEN IT CAME time for center Olu Oluwatimi to take the stage at the Michigan talent show last August, he grabbed the microphone with a clear plan in mind.

It was time to let his new teammates really see him, the way his former Virginia teammates saw him for the bulk of his college career.

„I already know what song it was,“ his old Virginia roommate, Richard Burney, says with a laugh.

Burney said Oluwatimi, who started 35 games at Virginia before transferring to Michigan, would sing the song in the shower, or alone in his room, or anywhere, really.

I never know when you might walk by
So I gotta be right on time
When I see you
When I see you

There is something unexpected but particularly endearing about watching a 6-foot-3, 307-pound man belt out „When I See U,“ a slow jam by former American Idol winner Fantasia. His Michigan teammates started clapping and singing along.

Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, remembers watching the reaction of the players in the room. „It was a really cool moment, and just to see him open up like that was super awesome,“ Moore said.

Shortly after the talent show, his teammates voted Oluwatimi an alternate captain — seven months after his arrival to campus. Offensive linemen rarely take the spotlight, but that is not the case this season with Oluwatimi, the best player on the best offensive line in college football. „When I See U“ might as well be the unofficial theme to his season.

Michigan plays TCU in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), and it’s Oluwatimi who drives one of the best rushing teams in the nation. He’s also a veteran presence for first-year starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy as the Wolverines try to win their first national championship since 1997.

His affable personality, smarts, work ethic and leadership have made him a locker room favorite. None of this is surprising to anyone at Virginia, who watched Oluwatimi grow from walk-on to Rimington Award finalist over four years with the Cavaliers. When he decided to transfer to Michigan for 2022, those who know him best understood.

Indeed, former teammates and coaches might as well run the Olu Oluwatimi fan club, as they soak in everything he has earned.

They saw this — saw him — long ago.

„When preparation meets opportunity, there’s no luck involved in that,“ former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. „Anyone on the previous staff at Virginia, just smiles, like of course. What else would you expect?'“

But the journey itself has been unexpected and filled with challenges, as Oluwatimi went from largely overlooked high school recruit to walk-on to the best center in the country. Then last month, amid the best season of his life, Oluwatimi had to confront the most gutting challenge he had ever faced when tragedy hit Charlottesville, his former home.

THIS SEASON HAS provided Oluwatimi with clarity, both to anyone who might have doubted whether he could perform on a bigger national stage and to himself. He always believed he was an elite center, always knew he could be the key cog in a power run game. He thrives on being physical. Scratch that. He has a passion for being physical.

It was not hard to see, and easy to understand why Oluwatimi racked up multiple awards earlier this month — the Rimington as the best center in the country, and the Outland Trophy, given annually to the best interior lineman on offense or defense. The individual honors are nice, but Oluwatimi will tell you the one that means the most is the Joe Moore Award, presented to the best offensive line in the country.

Needless to say, Oluwatimi is a big reason Michigan won that award for the second straight year.

„The way he attacks his preparation, the way he attacks the game, he’s an extraordinary player,“ Sherrone Moore said. „He’s got elite ability, he’s got strength, he’s got power, he’s got physicality. And he uses all that very well in every situation, and his leadership traits have really pushed the guys because they see how he works, how he is, and they just want to emulate that.“

Oluwatimi has always taken great pride in being a great teammate, now at Michigan and previously at Virginia. After he left the Cavaliers, he stayed in touch with his former teammates and was part of several group texts — including one with offensive linemen who transferred at the same time he did.

The Monday before Michigan’s Nov. 19 game against Illinois, Oluwatimi learned that Virginia football players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry were shot and killed after returning home from a class trip. Oluwatimi played with Davis for two years, with Perry for three. Chandler had arrived after Oluwatimi left.

Oluwatimi played against Perry, a defensive lineman, both on the scout team and in practice. The text exchanges between friends and brothers continued that day and throughout the week as he tried to find a way to grapple with the loss while feeling disconnected from those suffering back in Charlottesville.

„It was a rough week,“ Oluwatimi said. „To see them gone so soon, it was definitely rough, and I wasn’t around with the team when all that happened, so that was hard not being there with my guys. The team ended up going to three funerals within two weeks, so all the mourning and tears and the family members that have to deal with the loss, it hits home. It’s tough. But they’re in heaven. They’re proud of their teammates. They’re proud of me. We’ve got some angels up in heaven.“

There were phone calls, too, including to teammates who had also left UVA.

„It is a hard thing being detached from the situation, but also being so close to it,“ said former Virginia teammate Ryan Swoboda, now at UCF. „We’re in contact with a lot of the guys still on the team, so just being able to talk to them and share stories was the most helpful.“

On the day of the memorial in Virginia, Oluwatimi suited up to take on Illinois. Earlier that week, his father was going in for surgery to remove a brain tumor. Oluwatimi had a lot to deal with, but being on the football field provided him a measure of solace.

„When we’re on that football field, it’s a beacon of togetherness, a beacon of hope, and it’s my happy space,“ Oluwatimi said. „When I’m with my guys here, it was definitely a break from the grieving process. So playing football, it was easy for me, and it was actually needed for me.“

Said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh following the Illinois game: „He has the strength of 10 men. The week he had this week, not only the physical strength of 10 men, but the mental strength of 10 men. The victims at Virginia, that tragedy was personal for him. Those were some of his teammates. And his dad had successful surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. All that was going on for Olu this week. I think back to being that age and there’s no way I could’ve handled that.“

With a heavy heart, Oluwatimi pushed forward to finish the season strong with a Big Ten championship and a spot in the CFP. His dad has since recovered from the surgery, a ray of hope heading into the final stretch of the year.

There is no doubt the biggest on-field tests remain, but if Oluwatimi knows one thing, it is how to handle challenges and doubters.

IT MIGHT FEEL expected now, but out of football hotbed DeMatha Catholic high school in Maryland, nobody saw Oluwatimi for what he could become. With zero Power 5 offers, Oluwatimi opted to go to Air Force as a freshman in 2017, but after a year he realized, „This is not for me.“

He decided to transfer to Virginia, in part because a former high school teammate told him he thought it would be a good fit. Plus, it was much closer to home. As the youngest of six children to Nigerian immigrants, family has always been a bedrock for him.

Oluwatimi arrived as a walk-on in 2018 with familiarity among the coaching staff. Virginia recruited him out of high school but did not offer a scholarship because, in large part, the projections about whether he could add enough weight and mature enough physically were unclear.

„A lot of times, there’s a risk aversion by a program when they don’t know for sure,“ Mendenhall said. „After one year of seeing his growth and progress at Air Force, we wish we would have done something earlier. So when we had the second chance to act, it was a much easier decision.“

Playing on his second college team in as many years presents challenges, especially when it comes to getting to know a new set of teammates. But Oluwatimi took a simple approach.

„Every coach and every teammate loves somebody that’s going to lay it on the line and work hard for the squad and be selfless,“ Oluwatimi said. „You can’t be fake. So if you’re yourself and you have those qualities of being humble and a hard worker, everybody’s going to love you, and that’s how I’ve been able to mesh with the teams that I’ve been on.“

Indeed, Oluwatimi got to work, putting in long hours both with the team and on his own. In the weight room, he had to work on gaining better flexibility in his hips and functional movement with his entire body. He ran stiff at times, so gaining better fluidity with his lower body was at the top of his list.

All that extra work, whether that meant waking up early, watching extra game tape or staying late to help a teammate, stood out immediately. Swoboda describes Oluwatimi’s preparation as „surgical“ because „he takes everything into consideration and works to perfect his craft.“

„He’s in the top 1% of people in strength, speed, agility,“ Swoboda said. „He’s in the top 1% of people in terms of his mental understanding of scheme and techniques, and he’s in the top 1% of people who finish plays and are tenacious on the field. So when you’re in the top 1% of those three categories, as an O-lineman, it’s probably a nightmare for defensive lineman.“

Oluwatimi had to sit out 2018 because of the transfer rules that existed back then, but he and then-graduate assistant Jackson Matteo got into a routine. Matteo told Oluwatimi about the Rimington Award. Every drill they did together, Matteo would repeat: Rimington, Rimington, Rimington. „All those words can just mean nothing,“ Matteo said. „Or you can literally watch a young man take full responsibility for his destiny and turn it into reality.“

By the time 2019 rolled around, Oluwatimi had earned a scholarship and the starting center job, essentially becoming the assistant to then-offensive line coach Garett Tujague. The two spent countless hours together watching tape. Oluwatimi was responsible for setting the front and calling all protections, and his preparation provided a calming presence on the field, even when things would go wrong.

Former teammate Jack Keenan called it „ironclad emotional control.“

„It is almost impossible to ruffle his feathers,“ Tujague said. „I never saw him lose control of the situation he was in. I would come over to the sideline to talk to the linemen and Olu would tell me, ‚Coach, we got it.‘ He and I had invested so much in preparing for Saturdays that it made it that much easier.“

Perhaps more indicative of what was to come, Mendenhall had his players go through assessments to determine the best way they learned and communicated. Oluwatimi’s scoring was tilted heavily toward factual, analytical, logical and sequential learning and decision making.

„That is magical for the position he plays,“ Mendenhall said. „His ability to identify defensive fronts, in a sequential, thorough way, and then have us in the appropriate run play, check or protection, the number of times that he misses that is almost zero.“

Mendenhall said he noticed Oluwatimi work even harder ahead of the 2021 season. Strength coaches would text him constantly, „Olu is here again.“

„If you put a camera outside of our outdoor and indoor facility at UVA, he probably walked in and out of that building more than anybody,“ Swoboda said.

Oluwatimi would hold film sessions to help freshmen and sophomores, and stay after practice to help anyone who needed it. If anyone had a question about technique, formations or alignments, they would text Oluwatimi and he quickly responded.

„Coach Mendenhall had the mantra ‚earned not given,‘ and Olu embodies that probably more than anybody else that came to that program,“ Keenan said.

When the 2021 season ended, Oluwatimi had earned second-team All-ACC honors and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy — a first in Virginia history. But when Mendenhall stepped down in December of 2021, Oluwatimi had to make a decision.

„I honestly wanted to go to the NFL, but the draft grades and scouts were telling me to come back to school,“ Oluwatimi said. „So I decided to look for a different opportunity to try to elevate my draft grade, because I felt that I did all I could do at the University of Virginia. I wanted to go to a place where I felt that we could compete for a national title and win a conference championship.“

OLUWATIMI WAS TRANSFERRING for the second time in his career. Only this time, Michigan saw exactly who he was.

The Michigan recruiting staff alerted Sherrone Moore as soon as they saw Oluwatimi’s name enter the portal. Michigan was losing center Andrew Vastardis, the anchor of the Joe Moore-award winning offensive line, so this was a position that needed a veteran presence — especially with three starters on the offensive line returning.

„I knew right away who he was, and I went back to watch the film and was like, ‚This guy’s really good,“ Moore said. „When he came on his visit, we knew right away he would be awesome, just from a personality standpoint, how he acted, very humble. It was love at first sight for everybody.“

Whether Moore knew it at the time or not, Michigan had always been a dream school for Oluwatimi. The opportunity to showcase his ability as a power run blocker — something that Virginia did not do as an Air Raid offense — only added to the appeal.

„It was a perfect fit,“ said Burney, his Virginia roommate. „I remember telling him, ‚If you can put it all together, the sky’s the limit,‘ and now we’re here. It’s crazy.“

The same characteristics his Virginia teammates and coaches raved about were on display as soon as he arrived in Ann Arbor last January. He simply worked, and essentially had the playbook down by the time spring practice started.

„He was asking me in the first days of spring ball, ‚Hey, Coach when are we going to put this play in?'“ Moore said. „And I was like, ‚It’s not going in until like install seven. He’s like, ‚Oh because I was just looking at them last night and just want to make sure I had it down.'“

His play this season might have been a revelation to those unfamiliar with Virginia and ACC football, but those who have watched Oluwatimi over the past three seasons can’t help but smile.

Former Virginia teammate Martin Weisz decided to visit Oluwatimi in Ann Arbor for the Wolverines‘ game against UConn in Week 3. Though the game was a 59-0 blowout win, Weisz recalls watching Oluwatimi interact with his coaches and teammates on the sideline, and again after the game.

„I could just tell even though he was in that offensive line room at Michigan for less than a year, he had already emerged as somebody who everyone could lean on,“ Weisz said. „After the game, they always have a tailgate for players and their families, and one of the younger centers was going over film with Olu, asking him all these different questions about football, life, how he manages it all. I know how much they value Olu’s experience, and they truly take his words very, very seriously, just because he’s been through it all.“

Without question, Oluwatimi has elevated the offensive line in Ann Arbor. Michigan ranks No. 6 in the nation in rushing offense, and Moore said his presence was „huge“ for McCarthy because „you’ve got somebody in the middle that can help you and get you out of things if you’re unsure.“

Now the biggest test remains. Michigan lost in the CFP semifinals to Georgia last year, in large part because it could not handle the Bulldogs‘ defensive front.

This is all new to Oluwatimi but do not expect him to lose focus. That is simply not in his nature. He knows what is at stake, and how much his teammates are depending on him in what is now the biggest game of the season against TCU.

„Through the first 13 games of the year, I’m happy with how I performed and what I’ve done,“ Oluwatimi said. „We’ve got two more, and I’ve got to show some more. I’m excited.“

Oluwatimi is now rated the No. 2 center headed into the 2023 NFL draft by both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, a far cry from being told to return to school a year ago. NFL scouts are recognizing Oluwatimi, too. But any NFL draft talk has been shoved to the side.

Instead, there has been time for reflection. The night before the regular-season finale against Ohio State, Michigan held a team meeting. As Harbaugh talked, Oluwatimi looked around, taking everything in, appreciating every moment over the last six years as if he was seeing it all for the first time.

„I could have never imagined my college journey bringing me here, being able to compete for a national title,“ Oluwatimi said. „As I look back and reflect on the journey, I’m just speechless.“

Quellenlink : www.espn.com

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