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‘He looked like a wrestling action figure’: Odeluga making his mark on Illini

The young linebacker is forcing his way into more playing time.

TCR // Brad Repplinger

He’s a rare figure in college football.

He broke into the rotation as a situational pass rusher…from the inside.

Think about the level of disruptive talent you would have to possess to be trusted to rush the passer through the meatiest meat of the defense.

That’s Kenenna Odeluga.

His recruitment was a curious case. After a stellar prep career at Chicago Catholic League powerhouse Mt. Carmel, Odeluga committed to study and play football at the University of Pennsylvania.

When Bret Bielema came calling, Odeluga chose to play for the in-state Illini. He spurned Wharton for Gies.

That level of physical dominance paired with Ivy League intellect creates a serious problem for the Big Ten.

It certainly caused trouble for Athan Kaliakmanis and the Minnesota Golden Gophers at the end of their one-point loss to Illinois on Saturday.

On Minnesota’s final do-or-die drive, Odeluga made two big plays.

On first down, he scored a diving pass breakup.

On second down, after Johnny Newton forced Kaliakmanis out of the pocket, the veteran QB tried to run. But he couldn’t make it past the line of scrimmage. Odeluga stopped the play right where it started.

But this kind of big play ability is no surprise to those who know him.

“When K.O. showed up on campus, he looked like a wrestling action figure,” said Johnny Newton.

“That comes from having a great work ethic. I see it every day in practice.”

When a potential First-Team All-American has that high praise for you, you’re doing something right.

Newton takes pride in being a leader and “coaching up” the young guys. After the game in Minneapolis, Newton talked about how sitting out the first half inspired him to act like a coach on the sidelines. He studies his opponents like he studies his teammates in practice.

Odeluga’s role is expanding in Andy Buh’s linebacker room. He, along with Dylan Rosiek and James Kreutz, appears to be poised to take the mantle from the Jake Hansen/Tarique Barnes “generation” of backers.

Oregon’s Noah Sewell was utilized in a similar way. He became an NFL Draft pick this past season.

If Kenenna Odeluga is good enough to reach those heights, it won’t surprise anyone in the Smith Center.