Hanover — It was midway through last season when Dartmouth College linebacker Folarin Orimolade lined up for a play near the Central Connecticut sideline in New Britain, Conn. He and his thickly-muscled physique were being admiringly heckled by one of the Blue Devils’ strength and conditioning coaches.
“Hey, No. 9!” hollered the man. “I want some of whatever you’re on, brother!”
He turned back towards the sideline. “Damn, that kid is a monster,” he said to no one in particular.
Dartmouth’s other opponents agree. Last month, Towson coach Rob Ambrose, whose team competes in the highly-regarded Colonial Athletic Association and has played the likes of Louisiana State, East Carolina, South Florida and Indiana during the past 10 years, raved about the Big Green’s sack machine and sought him out after the Tigers’ loss.
“I told him he is one of the best football players I’ve seen on film in the last decade,” said Ambrose, whose squad double-teamed Orimolade at all times but couldn’t stop him from recording seven tackles and a sack. “I don’t have any problem voting for him as an All-American. He’s amazing.”
And to think that Dartmouth defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Don Dobes wasn’t completely sold the first time he saw the suburban Maryland product’s high school highlight tape. Kevin Lewis, then the Big Green’s defensive line coach, had discovered Orimolade at Blake High School, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C, but the senior had missed half the season because of a foot injury.
What Dobes saw was a kid who had only started playing two years before and who had competed in only about 20 games since. The technique? Awful. The sheer athleticism and nonstop motor? Eye-catching.
“From the first time he came out for football he wanted to prove himself and he never got comfortable and lost that desire,” said Blake coach Anthony Nazzaro.
Dobes wasn’t sure and he wondered why Dartmouth was the only Ivy League school taking a look at this prospect. Central Connecticut and Georgetown wound up offering him admission but overall interest was tepid at best. Still, Dobes swung by for a home visit and was sold. He found parents, Taiye and Ibigola Orimolade, who had emigrated from Nigeria and worked as nurses. They had instilled a similar drive in their older son, who was polite and academically successful.
“He had all the intangibles,” said Dobes, who has coached in the Ivies for 27 years. “You could sense his thirst to be a great player.”
The next spring, Orimolade and other committed high school seniors came to Dartmouth to watch a practice session and learn more about the college. While others laughed, strolled around Memorial Field or talked with their parents, Orimolade sat on a sideline bench and stared intently at the field. His expression was dead serious. He needed to know just what he would be going up against in a few months and how prepared he would have to be to earn immediate playing time.
Orimolade lifted weights regularly that summer, a first for him. He fretted about letting down his family and Dartmouth’s football program, which he knew had gambled by awarding him an admissions slot. Still, he was unprepared when, after a preseason film session at which he had peppered Dobes with questions, the veteran coach told him not to worry.
“He said that one day I would be a really great football player,” said Orimolade, who is now 6 feet and 235 pounds. “I didn’t know how good I was back then.”
Good enough to play regularly during opponents’ passing downs as a freshman and excel thereafter. Today’s season finale at Princeton will be Orimolade’s 30th consecutive start and he’s attracted legitimate NFL attention. But it all required enormous time and effort on the part of himself and his coaches.
So raw was Orimolade upon his first Dartmouth practice that Dobes had to teach him a proper stance and footwork, to say nothing of the best way to power past mammoth offensive linemen and knee-chopping running backs. The freshman had been a standout wrestler in high school and he exploded off the line of scrimmage, always returning with questions and recalling instruction without need for it to be repeated.
“We were doing almost Pop Warner stuff,” Dobes recalled. “it wasn’t even like he was scraping the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t know what the iceberg was.”
Oh, but he learned. Mentored by older linebackers such as Bronson Green, Mike Runger and Will McNamara, Orimolade grew into a force off the edge. He’s led Dartmouth in sacks the past two years and was a first team All-Ivy pick last fall, when the Big Green earned a share of its first league title since 1996. Bearing down on the quarterback, Orimolade almost always delivers an arm chop or a short punch in the moment before he tackles, resulting in frequent forced fumbles.
“People have to prepare for Flo,” said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens. “Where is he? But when you direct stuff at one guy, someone else has an opportunity. There’s a lot of things that happen because of what Flo has done… he is disruptive.”
Even more impressive is that Orimolade played last fall with a labrum tear in his hip. Doctors told him the chances of worsening the injury were negligible, so he competed through what for others would have been debilitating pain. He underwent surgery shortly after the season and recuperated at the family home of head football trainer Mike Derosiers, where his immense bulk quickly broke a living room recliner.
The chairs in Dartmouth’s football offices have proven stronger over time, for Orimolade spends a minimum of 10 hours a week there, watching opponents’ video. Familiarizing himself with their formations, plays and tendencies allows him to correctly interpret the action on the field. Does this guard’s foot placement indicate when he’s about to pull? Does the quarterback always glance at the tight end before throwing to him?
“The game is easier when you have a good idea of what they’re going to run before they do it,” Orimolade said. “You can’t really expect to be good at something if you’re not prepared. When you’re able to whittle it down, it’s a lot easier to play fast.”
Orimolade leads NCAA Football Championship Subdivision players in forced fumbles (5) and is fourth in sacks per game (1.0). He’s second on Dartmouth’s career list in the former category with 23.5 and needs two more to overtake 2006 graduate Anthony Gargiulo, who played in the Canadian Football League. Orimolade leads Dartmouth with 70 tackles, 13.5 of them for a loss, and is a strong candidate to be the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year.
An economics major with a 3.0 grade-point average, Orimolade is quick enough that he can often get partially past opponents before they lay a hand on him and has the power to bowl them over by crashing into their chests. His quick hands allow him to counteract a blocker’s own mitts and his time as a star high school wrestler no doubt helps him knock foes off-balance. Orimolade said his height, which might be seen as a shortcoming, is actually a benefit, because he always wins the leverage battle.
Knowing how opponents will key on him, Dartmouth’s defensive coaches have this season made Orimolade a rambling man. He may line up at inside linebacker on one snap, as a rush end the next and fall off into coverage on the third.
“Last year, you knew where he was going to be 95 percent of the time,” said Dobes, who credits his protégée for knowing the jobs of his other 10 teammates and understanding how he fits into the overall scheme. “This year, we’ve let him use all his talents to diagnose what’s happening.”
Dartmouth has struggled despite Orimolade’s dominance. The Big Green is 4-5 overall and 1-5 in Ivy play and Orimolade shakes his head when asked about a season during which the Big Green has often looked better than its record. Princeton is 7-2 and 5-1 and needs to win Saturday to have a shot at a share of the Ancient Eight crown.
“We kill ourselves with penalties or turnovers or someone being the wrong gap or missing an assignment,” he said. “The plays we give up are on us. It’s not that other teams are making great plays against us. We practice stuff every day but we don’t do it on game day.
“We have a lot of guys without experience and it’s tough to teach experience.”
Five Dartmouth players got at least some sort of NFL shot after last season but only center Jacob Flores, with Green Bay’s practice squad, is still competing at that level. Cornerback Vernon Harris is on injured reserve with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Orimolade knows getting drafted next spring is highly unlikely but he’s confident he can hook on as a free agent and impress enough to earn a roster slot. He’ll graduate after the current term and plans to move to Los Angeles to train and prepare for his chance at professional football.
“The scouts have told me I’ll get a shot,” he said. “I worked harder than pretty much everybody to get here, now I need to take advantage of another opportunity.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3227.