Consider it a Toledo takeover.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers enter training camp in a little more than two weeks, three former members of the Toledo Rockets will make up their 90 man roster. Two of them are rookies. third round pick Diontae Johnson and UDFA Tuzar Skipper. While Johnson has been hyped up plenty, and with good reason, the spotlight rests on second-year linebacker Ola Adeniyi.
It almost didn’t happen. Had the Steelers called him just a few minutes later after the 2018 draft, he’s probably playing somewhere else. There were offers from at least ten teams, he told me in an interview earlier this week. There was Philadelphia, who offered him the largest signing bonus. Chicago and Oakland made convincing cases. And Adeniyi was about to accept one of them, to a 3-4 defense he couldn’t quite remember, before the Steelers rang his agent.
That made it an easy decision. Pittsburgh was his next home.
It was the clear choice for two reasons. His goal was to play with his hand up, not in the dirt for a 4-3 defense. That’s what took the Eagles out of the running. And the relationship built up with OLBs coach Joey Porter sealed the deal.
“One of my coaches at Toledo had ties with Pittsburgh and Joey Porter,” Adeniyi said in the interview. “Joey Porter had his eyes on me the entire time. He was scouting me and all that. When Pittsburgh called, Pittsburgh was one of the last teams to call because we were about to commit somewhere else but then they called. And my agent was trying to work out the money issue, get the most money. So when they called, it was a no-brainer. Me and my agent talked about it depth-chart wise. A 3-4, that’s what I wanted to play, outside linebacker not a traditional defensive end.”
Adeniyi made his presence felt almost immediately, picking up a strip sack against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason opener, recovered by the Steelers. He played well the rest of the summer, becoming one of those guys every fan clamored to keep. It wasn’t just as a pass rusher either. He showed a well-rounded game, getting after the quarterback and tossing tight ends aside in the run game.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) August 25, 2018
Briefly, he was kept was on the 53 man roster. But after suffering a hamstring strain in the preseason finale, the Steelers moved him to injured reserve, designated to return later in the year.
An early road bump to his career, sure, but one he thought he’d quickly put past him. Be out for the mandatory six weeks, return the seventh, get back in the lineup. He even tweeted as much. It didn’t work that way.
“Oh man, it was tough,” he says of starting the year on the sidelines. “Because when they had made the decision to put me on IR, when I talked to the GM, it was said to me, after six weeks I would be back. That’s what was locked into my head. But it was six weeks I can return. So it wasn’t like after six weeks I was coming back. But that’s what I had my mindset on.”
It took twelve weeks, December 1st, for the team to officially activate him to the 53 man roster. By then, for a rookie, the train hasn’t just left the station. It’s in another state. Adeniyi logged nine snaps against the Los Angeles Chargers when Bud Dupree missed a week but ended the year largely stuck on the bench.
The goal this year is to see the field a whole lot more. Adeniyi knows that won’t be a given. The depth chart largely remains the same. Dupree and TJ Watt are slated to start and Anthony Chickillo has earned the trust of the coaching staff. The path for him, like any backup, is through special teams. After rarely playing there in college, he says that was the hardest part of his first camp.
“Special teams wise, it was a lot tougher than the actual defense because I pride myself on being a really smart guy. I locked in on plays but special teams wise, I think was the harder part for me going through training camp. I tried to prepare myself for that but there’s only so much you can do until you get there and you see what it is. You being the guy in school and not playing too many special teams and you come here and you have to play special teams. I think that’s the bigger adjustment for me.”
It’s what he continues to work at during the offseason and during OTAs, he got with special teams coordinator Danny Smith to hammer out the details.
“He’s a great coach,” Adeniyi says of Smith. “He knows how to bring the best out of you. He doesn’t settle for less. That’s what you want in a coach. You want a coach who is going to motivate you, and not let you settle and make you be the best player possible. He’s a great coach.”
Last summer made it clear he has the talent to stick as a pass rusher. But he’ll have to battle to make the roster again. The team drafted Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert III to compete with him on special teams. Two more MAC guys entering the fold.
But there’s an edge to Adeniyi game, the way he plays, that dates back to being a light recruit out of high school. He played ball in Texas, where high school football is a religion in shoulder pads, but was passed up by every school in the state. There’s the natural chip on his shoulder from being a UDFA, teams telling him he’d get drafted somewhere on Day Three, only to pick someone else the rest of that day. Then there’s the motivation of his family, his mother, a single mom raising him and his brother into the men they are today. That’s what he fights for.
“I want to succeed in the NFL so she won’t have to work another day in her life. To make sure she has a better life than what she’s tried to give us.”
Should he play this year as well as he did as a rookie, Adeniyi will make himself a lock on the roster. And soon enough, record his first NFL sack and ultimately, a whole lot more.