Larry Ogunjobi could be on the cusp of a breakout season as he fights for a starting job on the Browns' defense.
In preparation of that quest, the second-year defensive tackle spent at least part of the offseason training with Bengals star Geno Atkins, hoping to pick up a thing or two from the six-time Pro Bowler and one of the league's premier defenders.
The pair's friendship began ahead of Ogunjobi's rookie season in Cleveland. Shortly after the 2017 NFL Draft, he wanted to surround himself with some of the league's top players at his position. He reached out to Atlanta-based trainer Chip Smith, who suggested he shadow Atkins at his performance facility there.
"I kind of just went out on a limb, got my hotel room, booked a rental car, got a flight and shot out to Atlanta," Ogunjobi said Saturday. "I didn't know if Geno was going to rock with me or was going to help me out, but he welcomed me with open arms that has been like my big brother ever since."
The extra work seems to have paid off as Ogunjobi has looked impressive through the first week of training camp. He took first-team reps in Friday's intrasquad scrimmage and is competing to fill the shoes of Danny Shelton, the former first-round pick whom the Browns traded to New England this past spring. And with starting defensive tackle Trevon Coley (ankle) down for the next few weeks, Ogunjobi will get extra snaps to prove himself to the coaching staff. It's an opportunity, he said, he won't take for granted.
"You always try to set yourself up for this opportunity, this moment to prove yourself. I don't work hard to be second best; I work hard to be the best," he said. "Any opportunity that's in front of me is my chance to seize it. You just have to go out there. My homeboys are hurt, but we still have to continue to raise the level of competition, continue to get better and just hold down the fort until our guys get healthy again."
As a rookie, Ogunjobi made 32 tackles and a sack in 14 games (including one start). That production, however, didn't accurately reflect his impact and development throughout the season. He was regarded by Pro Football Focus as one of the top interior defenders and seemed to grow with each passing week.
Drafted 65th overall out of Charlotte, Ogunjobi entered the NFL with plenty of promise but relatively little experience actually playing football. He picked up the sport as a high school sophomore at the behest of his parents, who wanted him to stop playing video games and get down to a healthier body weight.
Ogunjobi went on to be a star nose tackle at UNC-Charlotte and became the school's first-ever player to advance to the NFL. While Cleveland's coaching staff recently moved him back to that position following a stint at the three-technique, he'll rotate between those spots to account for Coley's absence.
That's no problem for Ogunjobi, who believes playing both roles have helped become a more well-rounded player. "I feel like I have been able to kind of take both of those positions and kind of merge them into one," he said.
And as Ogunjobi continues fighting for a starting job, he'll lean on Atkins.
"We talk every day about the goals I have, the things I have in place for myself, the things that I want to accomplish this year and it's just good to have that," he said, "someone who has already done it, who's in the position you want to be in be better and you know kind of have someone leading you along the way.
"So he's a really good mentor; he's like my big brother."