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Azeez Ojulari, rookie linebacker from Georgia, makes strong first impression at Giants camp

Giants linebacker Azeez Ojulari  defends tight end

Giants linebacker Azeez Ojulari  defends tight end Cole Hikutini during training camp on Monday, Aug 2, 2021. Credit: Brad Penner

Joe Judge has been impressed by Azeez Ojulari in training camp.

"In terms of his mental understanding of the system and schemes, he’s made progress in that," Judge said of the Giants’ second-round draft choice, an outside linebacker who they expect to give their pass rush a boost this season.

He’s also noticed Ojulari’s conditioning, something that rookies often overlook.

"He’s really shown us a lot of jumps in how he came in in shape to training camp," Judge said. "Where he is in the pack as far as running, he’s not toward the back, he’s getting up there toward the front. The demonstration of how he’s working and got himself in physical shape . . . has helped him to this point."

It’s certainly nice when the coach is pleased with your efforts, but Ojulari still has plenty left to prove to the Giants.

"The real test," Judge said of his NFL readiness, "will be when the pads come on."

That starts Tuesday.

After an offseason program and first week of training camp spent mostly in shorts and helmets, it’s been a while since the Giants have buckled up their equipment for actual hitting. That changes with the first full-contact workout of the season.

Ojulari looks forward to it.

"The last time I put on pads was January 1, Peach Bowl game in Atlanta," he said of a game in which he had three sacks to help Georgia beat Cincinnati. "You gotta love it. You play defense, you gotta hit people. It’s part of the game and can’t wait to do it."

It will give the Giants a first real look at what they have not only in Ojulari but also a number of other pieces on their roster. After playing bumper cars with each other, the offensive and defensive linemen finally will get a chance to exact some real collisions. The defensive backs who have been pulling their punches when it comes to tackling ballcarriers and breaking up passes no longer will be chided for contact.

"Obviously, as training camp goes on at all positions, the pads are on, the competition picks up," Judge said.

For players such as Ojulari, who will get their first taste of that at the NFL level, it’s an important step. Last year, first-round pick Andrew Thomas had an initiation into that world when he lined up against former college teammate Lorenzo Carter on the first practice in pads. The rookie left tackle was beaten badly but shook it off. Interestingly, Carter likely will be part of another Georgia-on-Georgia baptism when he lines up against Ojulari on Tuesday.

"Man, we’ve been going at it since college," Ojulari said of the matchup, "so it’s just coming out here trying to compete every single day. We try to make each other better every single day, no matter what it is. No plays off, just keep improving, trying to work hard against each other and get better, so it’s going to be good."

Thomas and Ojulari have been facing each other throughout camp as the rookie has been seeing more and more first-team reps because of injuries and position changes at outside linebacker.

"It felt like Georgia again, going at it every day," Thomas said. "I’m excited to have him here, definitely want to work and get better with him next to me."

Beyond that, Ojulari doesn’t really know what to expect. Not even regarding his role this season.

"I’m just trying to come in, do what the coaches want me to do, get better," he said. "If the opportunity comes or whatever, I’ll play to the best of my ability. Plays come, just try to make as many plays as I can. You know, just go all out for the team."

And finally, on Tuesday, hit someone.

Notes & quotes: Saquon Barkley remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with no definitive timetable for his return, but Judge said he and the medical staff have seen "tangible progress" from the running back as he works on the side. "He’s making a lot of strides for us," Judge said of Barkley’s return from a torn ACL . . . The Giants signed 10th-year running back Alfred Morris, who spent last season on their practice squad and roster and helped the team try to replace Barkley after his knee injury. He played in nine games, rushed for 238 yards and a touchdown on 55 carries and caught a TD pass . . . First-round pick Kadarius Toney (COVID-19 reserve) saw his first football activity of camp when the receiver participated in onside kick recovery drills after practice . . . In 10th-year offensive lineman Joe Looney’s first full practice with the Giants, he had to run two laps as punishment for mistakes. "That’s something I ain’t done since Little League," he said. "But you know what? I loved it. It’s another way to hold us accountable as professionals. If you make a mistake, you’re going to have to run a lap for it." Looney was not alone. He, Daniel Jones and Nick Gates were among a number of players who had to run. At one point the entire defense – including coaches – was sent jogging after a substitution miscue . . . Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka attended practice and addressed the team. They were at the facility preparing for the season-long 10th anniversary celebration of the 2011 Super Bowl team.

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