Redskins rookie Orakpo adjusts to double duty

Rookie first-round draft picks in the NFL face the daunting task of adjusting to the speed of the professional level, living up to lofty expectations and not drowning in the sea of information that is thrown their way in learning the schemes. Washington Redskins rookie Brian Orakpo(notes), the team’s first-round NFL draft pick in April, faces those same challenges, plus one more: He is trying to do all of those things at two positions.

The Redskins coaches plan to use Orakpo as a stand-up strong-side linebacker on running downs and as a defensive end on passing downs this season. This means learning two spots, including one that Orakpo never played in college at Texas.

Photo Orakpo was taken with the 13th pick in the draft.
(Michael Layton/Getty)

Although Orakpo didn’t see much game action at linebacker at Texas, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp used both 3-4 and 4-3 concepts in his weekly game plan. This gave Orakpo the opportunity to perform linebacker duties in certain schemes, even though Muschamp might not have chosen to use that particular scheme come game time.

“The coaches and I are very comfortable with what I bring to the table and that I can play that position. It’s challenging, but I’m up to the task,” said Orakpo.

The Redskins’ coaching staff also believes that these two positions will utilize Orakpo’s skills most effectively.

“[LB coach] Kirk Olivadotti liked what he saw of Orakpo at [the] strong-side linebacker position [during minicamp], and he felt like that was a pretty good position for him, as well,” Redskins head coach Jim Zorn said. “So, Brian is going to be a real versatile athlete.”

Recently, the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker has produced mixed results. Jets outside ‘backer Vernon Gholston(notes), the sixth overall pick in the ’08 draft out of Ohio State, had a trying season last year learning his new position and played sparingly on defense. Jason Babin(notes), the 27th overall pick of the Texans in 2004, has also struggled. Babin played defensive end at Western Michigan, but has been unable to adapt to linebacker in the NFL, having bounced around with three teams in only five seasons.

Conversely, the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs(notes) has had great success since moving from defensive end to linebacker after he was drafted in 2003. Suggs was named defensive rookie of the year and has been chosen for three Pro Bowls. DeMarcus Ware(notes), a defensive end at Troy, has also thrived as an outside linebacker for the Cowboys. Ware has made the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons and twice has been named to the All-Pro team.

Orakpo not only has to master the transition to linebacker, but he must also work on his pass-rushing technique, as he faces bigger and stronger offensive linemen at the professional level. And he has to do all of this quickly, because the Redskins appear to have him penciled in as the starter at strong-side linebacker and third-down pass rusher.

“[Brian] understands what we’re trying to do with him, both with [DL coach John] Palermo and myself,” Olivadotti said. “He knows that it’s not all about being in the exact most comfortable position that he is used to being in, but right now is the time to see if we can get him comfortable doing some things, in order for him to be the most effective all the time.”

One thing that will help Orakpo in his transition is his relentless work ethic. He chiseled his body while at Texas, leaving with less than 10 percent body fat. Orakpo entered college weighing only 210 pounds but left at a sturdy 265 pounds.

“Brian is as mature a college player as I’ve been around,” said Muschamp. “He really approaches things in a serious manner and takes things to heart with his work ethic and his approach to the game.”

Orakpo also has been praised by Redskins coaches for his ability to learn quickly and pick up the defensive schemes as he goes. He definitely made a strong impression at the Redskins’ minicamps.

“I saw a guy that is a tremendous athlete, and he tried to hustle,” Zorn said. “He was in a lot of plays. I don’t know if it was rain or sweat, but he was drenched pretty good, so I think he was working hard.”

Orakpo also has had help in this process from the veterans on the Redskins’ defense, which finished fourth in the NFL last season in yards allowed per game.

London Fletcher(notes), Philip Daniels, Andre Carter(notes) and all the guys have been really helpful,” said Orakpo. “When I came in, I was just thrown in with the first team, learning on the fly, and if I missed an assignment, they would just tell me how to correct it right there on the fly, without the coaches having to talk to me.”

In addition to leaning on the veterans for knowledge, Orakpo also will be aided by the Redskins’ biggest offseason addition, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes). Haynesworth was a first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons and has 14½ sacks over that span. His pass-rushing capabilities should take some of the pressure and focus off Orakpo on passing downs.

Even though Orakpo is viewed as a starter in the upcoming season, he is not the only Redskin preparing for double duty. Third-year defensive end Chris Wilson(notes) also is attempting to learn both linebacker and defensive end and he has provided some company and competition for Orakpo.

“We call ourselves the hybrids,” Orakpo said. “It’s a unique position, and we think of ourselves as special. We brag a lot about being the only guys who can play two positions. We’re both trying to learn both positions, and we push each other and feed off of each other.”

While the spotlight definitely will be on Orakpo this season, he is more focused on team goals than individual accomplishments.

“My goal is just to win,” Orakpo said. “I’m a team-oriented guy; I don’t care about all that individual stuff. Every year I put up goals and the primary goals are always team goals. I just want to put up as many wins as we can and try to get to the postseason.”

Orakpo still may have a long road ahead, but he certainly has the attributes ‐ both physical and mental – to make a name for himself in the NFL.

“Football is very important to him; he has a great blue-collar work ethic and attitude and approach,” Muschamp said. “I think that he’ll be successful because he’s very talented, but he will handle that lifestyle very well off the field because he’s a very mature person.”

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