EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In two years at the University of Georgia and his 2021 rookie season with the Giants, Azeez Ojulari didn't miss a game.
His availability was twinned with production. Ojulari led the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks in 2019, the SEC with 8.5 in 2020 and the Giants with a franchise rookie record 8.0 in 2021.
But his good fortune expired this year. Ojulari injured his hamstring in a pre-training camp workout and opened camp on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury. He practiced for the first time on Aug. 15, but 11 days later strained his calf near the conclusion of a joint workout with the Jets, an injury that cost him the first two games of the season. Ojulari made his 2022 debut vs. Dallas on Sept. 26 but re-injured his calf the following week vs. Chicago. He was close to returning last month but aggravated the injury in practice and was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 22, a day before the Giants' victory in Jacksonville.
"It's tough when you go through a whole season with no injuries last year, and you come back this year and it's a rocky road," Ojulari said. "It's tough, but it's all going to work out at the end of the day. Just stay positive and stay strong because your time's going to come. When it comes, take advantage of it.
That time will hopefully be Sunday, two months and two days after he last played. Ojulari returned to practice this week and expects to play when the Giants host the Washington Commanders in a key NFC East matchup.
"I'm ready man, I'm so excited," Ojulari said. "It's been a minute, been watching from the side and now is the time to get out there and do what I do."
Once again, the New York Giants are bringing back their classic blue uniforms from the '80s and '90s this Sunday as part of two Legacy Games presented by Quest.
What he does is pressure opposing quarterbacks. After he recorded 14.0 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 24 games at Georgia, some scouting services rated him as the best edge rusher in the 2021 NFL. But he fell to the second round – perhaps because some teams were wary of a torn ACL he suffered at Marietta (Ga.) High School, and the Giants were thrilled to get him in the second round, No. 50 overall.
As a rookie, he played in all 17 games with 13 starts and led the Giants with 13 quarterback hits as well as the 8.0 sacks. He was the first rookie to lead the team since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Ojulari finished third among NFL rookies in sacks, fourth in quarterback hits and tied for fourth with eight tackles for loss.
Ojulari started both games in which he played this season and had three tackles, including one sack.
Asked how much he missed Ojulari, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said, "A lot. It sounds like a Hallmark card, doesn't it? (Laughs) 'I've missed you a lot.'"
Coach Brian Daboll today was not ready to say Ojulari will definitely play.
"I thought he practiced well yesterday," Daboll said. "I'm going to wait until the end to see how these guys are. You get your hopes up that they'll be ready, and then they're not ready. So, we'll see if we can put another good day together."
Ojulari and his teammates and coaches hope he can be a significant contributor as the Giants begin a stretch run they hope will lead to a playoff berth.
"Every game I want to take it to another level," he said. "Just bring it, all I got for the team for whatever I do to help the team win. At the end of the day, all we want to do is win on this long stretch. We got the last few games and just go compete."
The Giants drafted a running mate for Ojulari in the 2022 draft when they selected edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux from Oregon with the fifth overall selection. They were expected to be the Giants' dynamic pass-rushing duo. But like Ojulari, Thibodeaux missed the first two games (with a knee injurty). They were on the field together for two games before Ojulari went on hiatus.
Now, they can set their sights on harassing opposing quarterbacks, beginning with Washington's Taylor Heinicke.
"It's definitely exciting," Thibodeaux said. "He's a great player. We have meetings, and we're in practice every day together. So, having him back out there is definitely going to be a one-up for the D-line and for the pass rush – for the team. So, I'm excited to see him really let it loose."
The two young pass rushers believe they can elevate their own games and help their partner do the same.
"Just working off each other," Ojulari said. "I definitely feel like the way we rush and the way we play, we can definitely work with each other, for sure."
The Giants need what they specialize in. They have not recorded a sack in either of their last two games – losses to Detroit and Dallas – the first time that's happened in consecutive contests since Oct. 28-Nov. 12, 2018.
"I think that the sacks will come," Martindale said. "When are the sacks occurring? When they (opposing quarterbacks) have to hold the ball to make a play. Kayvon, I thought played his best game to date against Dallas (when he had five quarterback hits)."
During his lengthy absence, Ojulari stayed as involved with the team as he could. He attended defensive and D-line meetings, attended home games and watched when the Giants traveled.
Ojulari believes those observations will help him when he returns to the field.
"Definitely," he said. "Just watching, you see a lot more. You might see the little things that you might not see when you're playing. It's just different. You see it a different way. Definitely try to take advantage of it. You can't do anything out there until you get right, so I'm going to try to take advantage of what I can do."
The Giants are counting on it.
*Coach Brian Daboll did not want to discuss tomorrow's scheduled visit by free agent wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., the former Giant.
"I'm worried about Washington right now," Daboll said. "I understand the question. He'll obviously (be here), but in terms of details and things like that, my focus is on practice today."
Asked another question about Beckham's visit, Daboll said, "I'm just getting ready to practice for Washington. We'll cover that later."
*Five Giants did not practice today: cornerback Adoree' Jackson (knee); offensive linemen Joshua Ezeudu (heck) and Shane Lemieux (toe); wide receiver Richie James (knee); and running back Gary Brightwell (illness).
Eight players were limited: tight end Daniel Bellinger (eye); center Jon Feliciano (neck); defensive lineman Leonard Williams (neck); defensive backs Fabian Moreau (oblique), Darnay Holmes (shoulder) and Cor'Dale Flott (concussion; he wore a red non-contact jersey); and linebacker Carter Coughlin (thigh).
Tackles Evan Neal (knee) and Tyre Phillips (neck) were full participants.
View rare photos of the all-time series between the New York Giants and the Washington Commanders.