Back at defensive end, Julian Pinnix-Odrick emerges as force on defensive line
The hype surrounding the Rutgers football team's defensive line entering the 2016 season mainly stemmed from the imminent return of Darius Hamilton to the field.
The former five-star recruit missed all but a handful of snaps in the 2015 season due to a nagging right knee injury and the Scarlet Knights' defensive line faltered as a result of it, finishing the season with 8.5 sacks and 27 tackles for loss as a unit.
Through the first five games of this season, Hamilton has remained healthy while working back to the player that garnered him Third Team All-Big Ten honors from Phil Steele in 2014.
But the player lining up to the left of Hamilton has outproduced the Don Bosco product and emerged as a co-star to three-time captain on the Knights' defensive.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick leads Rutgers in both sacks (four) and tackles for loss (five for 27 yards). The Montclair, New Jersey, product is also second on the team in quarterback hurries (three) and fifth in total tackles (22).
Hamilton, who's very close friends with Pinnix-Odrick, is as happy as anyone to see the senior defensive end having a breakout season alongside of him. And that camaraderie the two fifth-year seniors share has played a key role in their success.
"There's certain things out there that we don't even have to communicate cause we're always on the same page," Hamilton said after Pinnix-Odrick had a 12-tackle game in a Rutgers win over New Mexico Sept. 17. "That's my best friend ... It's great to see him just finally have a home ... To finally see him just to be able to play where he feels comfortable. Something he's trained for, gotten his body ready for and I think you guys are just seeing the beginning of what he can do."
As Hamilton alluded to, Pinnix-Odrick hasn't traveled down a smooth road to success in his time on the Banks.
After redshirting his true freshman season in 2012, Pinnix-Odrick missed out on the entirety of the subsequent season after suffering a torn ACL during spring practice.
A long two years later, "JPO," as most call him by, finally made his debut in 2014, totaling 15 tackles and two sacks across 12 game appearances at defensive end.
But just as Pinnix-Odrick was beginning to show flashes of potential at defensive end, he was moved inside to tackle to replace the injured Hamilton last season. Despite the abrupt position change Pinnix-Odrick still produced at the three-technique with a respectable 33 total tackles.
When Chris Ash took over the reigns of the program in December, he and his defensive staff decided to move JPO back outside where he could better utilize is combination of speed, power and athleticism. A move that has proven to be the right one, as evidenced by Pinnix-Odrick's outstanding production.
But even without Pinnix-Odrick wreaking havoc against opposing offensive tackles this season, he would have a big fan in Chris Ash because of the way the senior captain carries himself off the game field.
"I love everything about JPO," Ash said on his weekly radio show "The Chris Ash Show" Sept. 28. "When we go through our stretch-practice routine we do a lot of running pre-practice. And it just makes my day when I can go out there and I can watch JPO just go so hard, just extremely hard. Just lead the defensive line, really the whole team throughout the conditioning period to start the day. If I'm having a bad day and I watch him, it brings a smile to my face. He practices that way and he goes and plays that way. He's just constantly trying to push himself and push others to be the best that they can be."
JPO came out on fire to begin the 2016 season, recording 20 tackles and three-and-a-half sacks through the first three games. He capped off that strong three-game string with the first double-digit tackle game of his career with 12 takedowns against New Mexico.
But since Big Ten competition has began, Pinnix-Odrick's production has slipped. In two conference games, he's strung together just two tackles and a half sack.
So while he may be feeling more comfortable back at defensive end, it means nothing if production doesn't come with it.
"I gotta do better, that's how I feel," Pinnix-Odrick said when asked how comfortable he's feeling at defensive end following Rutgers' loss to Iowa Sept. 24. "I mean there's some things, obviously, you feel more comfortable with. A couple of pass rush moves I felt worked for me a little bit. But, not nearly enough production from myself as a fifth-year senior. As a captain of the football team, I have to make more plays. I gotta make more plays for the team, within the scheme obviously. Not going outside of my job. But within my job I have to be a little bit better for my team."
With No. 4 Michigan (5-0, 1-0) coming to High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday night, another tough challenge stands in the way of Pinnix-Odrick and the rest of the Knights' defensive line. The Wolverines boast the No. 5 rushing attack in the Big Ten and quarterback Wilton Speight has only been sacked nine times this season.
But regardless of who's lined up across from Rutgers, Pinnix-Odrick is putting the onus on himself, along with the rest of the defensive line, to control the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback.
"As a fifth-year guy, super senior, you can't really be out there afraid of things aren't for the taking," Pinnix-Odrick said. "I think the D-line (has) really gotta take control of the game. It's our job as the leaders of the team to really do that. It's a line of scrimmage football team and we're on the D-line, we're the aggressors. So we really have to get after that quarterback, myself included. I have to get after the quarterback and that's one of my goals this week."