Redskins' Orakpo finds success at two positions
In the weeks leading up to the 2009 NFL draft, Oscar Giles's office phone would ring often. As the Texas Longhorns' defensive ends coach, he'd field question after question from NFL front-office personnel and coaches about Brian Orakpo. One of the most common: Can the best defensive end in college convert to the linebacker position as a pro?
"If I had a quarter for each time I answered that question, I'd be living okay right now," Giles said. "I told them all the same: He's a mature young man, and he did drop back in some coverage and play some linebacker here. Was it his natural position? No, but he could do it. And that's why it's not surprising to us now that he's been able to adapt so well."
When the Washington Redskins selected Orakpo with the 13th overall pick in April, Coach Jim Zorn said: "Right now, we have him slated as a defensive end. He's coming in as what we think is a pretty good pass rusher."
It wasn't long before coaches decided they could do even more with him. With seven games still remaining in the season, Orakpo has made the adjustment -- playing both strong-side linebacker and defensive end for Washington -- and has exceeded many of the expectations around Redskins Park.
A team that was tied for 28th in the league in sacks last season enters Sunday's game against Dallas tied for eighth, thanks largely to the addition of Albert Haynesworth at defensive tackle, the increased production from Andre Carter, whose eight sacks rank sixth in the NFL, and the emergence of Orakpo as one of the league's most dominant rookies.
Through nine games, Orakpo's seven sacks already are the most by any NFL rookie since 2006 and the most of any rookie in Redskins history. Making Orakpo's sack total perhaps more impressive: five of his sacks have come as a hands-down defensive end, a position he plays only about a third of the time.
"Obviously I would love to rush the passer all the time, but it's not a situation where I can do that," Orakpo said. "They need me at other spots. So I'm fine with what I'm doing now. I really enjoy it and don't have no problems."
His other two sacks have come as linebacker, though on each, Orakpo still lined up outside the tackle. In the Redskins' myriad defensive formations, Orakpo often stunts and doesn't always rush the passer from the edge. In last Sunday's win over Denver, Orakpo stopped Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton coming up the middle in what proved to be one of the game's decisive plays. Orton hurt his ankle on the tackle and missed the second half. His replacement, Chris Simms, was 3 for 13 passing for 13 yards.
Still, many think Orakpo's impact -- and especially his sack total -- would be even higher if he were still playing the position that earned him a shelf-full of awards and consensus all-American honors at Texas.
"They would be more successful if he was an all-down end," said Rashad Bobino, Orakpo's good friend and former Longhorns teammate. "Because that's what he's been doing his whole life, that's what he's great at. I would say he's so much more effective at the end spot."
Orakpo has consistently said he's enjoyed the challenge of learning a new position. Bobino has watched the entire evolution. Orakpo returned to Austin from Redskins minicamp with a playbook and instructions from coaches to study linebacker. Bobino was the Longhorns' middle linebacker and the two shared many long conversations about coverage, quarterback tendencies and play action.
"It's always going to be frustrating when you're taken out of your element," Bobino said. "And his element has always been with his hand on the ground. That's what he's comfortable at."