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Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
EAGAN — You might not know these brothers are related at first glance; one a fluid pass-rusher, the other a burly defensive tackle.
But it’s easy to hear the Odenigbo voice come through after a few minutes of conversation — animated, fast-talking and genuine.
Ifeadi and Tito Odenigbo are teammates once again.
“It’s kind of unique,” said Tito, an undrafted rookie. “I haven’t really been seeing him every day on a consistent level since high school. The last time I played football with him was my sophomore year of high school, so my family’s really excited, my friends and community are all really excited. It’s fun, but at the same time it’s still a business.”
The two defensive linemates, both with 53-man roster aspirations, played together eight years ago at Centerville High School in their native Ohio when Ifeadi was a Big-Ten-bound pass rusher and Tito was a Big-Ten-bound run-stuffer.
Since then, Ifeadi went to Northwestern while Tito grew up a bit more and landed with Illinois, setting up an Odenigbo vs Odenigbo matchup in 2015 and 2016. That’s when both their paths got more complicated.
After a 23.5-sack career in college, Ifeadi got drafted in the seventh round by the Vikings and became a practice squad stalwart. He was eventually waived in 2018 and spent stints with the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals before returning to Minnesota’s practice squad later that year.
Tito played four years at Illinois, his favorite childhood team, but with hopes of catching pro scouts’ eyes in his final season, he became a graduate transfer and landed with the Miami Hurricanes.
“Miami put me in the position to be in the NFL because I don’t think I’d have the same opportunity if I was at Illinois,” said Tito. “But the University of Illinois, all my friends and my classes just taught me how to become a man. Just two phases of a different culture.”
And now that they are reunited — 60 pounds heavier than they were in high school — they’ve been making up for lost time.
The brothers lived together in the Twin Cities when Tito was brought in as undrafted free agent in early May. After mandatory mini-camp they went to Kentucky, just south of their parents’ Ohio home to train at Ignition Athletics, putting in three-to-four-hour sessions working on mobility, explosion, conditioning and lifting. Upon their return to Eagan, they’ll share a defensive line room led by position coach Andre Patterson, who was instrumental in bringing Tito Odenibo to town.
“I told [Patterson], ‘Look out for him,'” Ifeadi relayed to his coach before the draft. “Throughout the whole free agency process our coach was like, ‘I think your brother has a lot of potential. You’ve grown a lot over the past three years, I think I can do the same with your brother if he buys in and works hard.'”
‘Older brother jerk’
The big-bro-little-bro dynamic is alive and well with the Odenigbos.
Ifeadi and Tito, along with their brother Sonto, grew up with their Nigerian-born parents competing in sports and, as Tito described, “butting heads.”
“I hated him, he was really annoying,” Tito said of his boyhood relationship with Ifeadi, “but I always respected him. He always did the right things, was extremely hard-working, so he’s kind of a good role model to look after his work ethic. The older we get the more I respect him.”
But Tito didn’t end his compliment without a final jab.
“He’s just annoying as a person — older brother jerk.”
Ifeadi smirks about the dynamic between he and his brother. He confesses to being hard on Tito, but says it’s because of his high expectations. After giving Patterson the recommendation to scout his younger brother, Ifeadi wants to see Tito make a name for himself in the NFL, even if it’s not with the Vikings.
“I guess the way I approach things I can be a little mean, I guess, or a little hard at times,” Ifeadi said. “I’m trying to tell him, do this, do that, do that. He’s a typical younger brother so I’m going to do me. And I’m trying to help him with that, tell him that this is not college. Here with everything you’ve got to be precise. If you can get technique down, whatever happens here, you’ll be fine because that technique will travel.”
Shooting for the 53
Ifeadi Odenigbo made a name for himself in the preseason of 2018 when he got two sacks as a fill-in defensive end against Jacksonville, making his eventual release more difficult that September. After his travels to Cleveland and Arizona, Minnesota brought him back to the practice squad midway through the 2018 season and eventually converted him to full-time defensive end.
The older brother believes he’ll be used as a pass-rushing 3-technique, as well, similar to Brian Robison’s role in 2017. With defensive end Tashawn Bower out indefinitely with a torn Achilles, Ifeadi sees an opening.
“I think the coaches have come to agreement that I’m a lot better at D-end than D-tackle,” Ifeadi said.
Listed at 315 pounds, Tito Odenigbo has the body of a nose tackle. He said he played football in high school at about the same weight as his older brother despite being two grades younger.
“Recently I found out what food was,” Tito joked.
While Ifeadi was a tweener for the first couple years of his career, Tito has a clear role. He doesn’t play as splashy a position as Ifeadi, posting only one sack is his college career at Illinois and Miami. He’ll need to perfect his technique as an inside gap-filler in order to contend at a position where the Vikings may have openings too.
“I think the coaches have come to agreement that I’m a lot better at D-end than D-tackle.”
“Just getting my footwork on par to how we’re going to run the defense,” Tito Odenigbo said. “It’s different than college, but not too difficult. … Adapting to new things is probably the biggest thing I’ve got to be working on right now.”
Not only will the younger Odenigbo get instruction from his big brother, but he’ll hear it from established veterans too. Head coach Mike Zimmer says he appreciates the way the veterans pass on their knowledge at the defensive line position.
“The veteran guys we have, Everson and [Linval Joseph] and those guys, they do a good job coaching them and keeping them in line,” Zimmer said. “A lot of these guys come in here and they think they know everything. We’re trying to do it a certain way.”
There are plenty of pairs of brothers that play in the NFL but few that play on the same team. Ifeadi and Tito Odenigbo hope to join the ranks of Ryan and Matt Kalil (Panthers) Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin (Seahawks) and Devin and Jason McCourty (Patriots) — brothers that got to wear the same logo on their jersey.
“He has to do his thing,” said Tito, “I have to do my thing, and hope for the best.”