Irele Oderinde played defensive line for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2002 when the school won the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) by defeating the McNeese State Cowboys 34-14.
That win is a moment Oderinde will never forget.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Oderinde said. “Not everyone gets to win a national championship, so I feel blessed to be a part of that.”
Twelve years later, Oderinde is trying to instill that championship mentality into the USF football team as the new Director of Athletic Performance.
The Bulls are coming off an underwhelming 2-10 season in which USF coach Willie Taggart said his team lacked the strength to execute his rushing attack style of offense.
Oderinde has experienced struggles similar to the 2013 Bulls and come out a national champion. The 2002 Hilltoppers had a losing record after their first five games, and through their turnaround, Oderinde learned how to overcome adversity.
“It’s something that I pull from, some of the pitfalls and experiences we had that year,” Oderinde said. “We started out 2-3 and ended up winning the rest of our games. We struggled at the beginning of the year, but we were able to turn it around and sometimes I pull from those experiences to help our guys understand that it can be done.”
An area USF looks to improve in the offseason is the offensive line. Out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, USF ranked 118th in rushing offense and 51st in sacks allowed. Oderinde admitted this was an area of the team that needed significant improvement, but he believes the group will be ready when the season begins.
“If we have a dominant front, then we will have a good football team,” Oderinde said. “We have to get them stronger, a little leaner and instill that mentality of being a dominant force.”
Junior offensive lineman Thor Jozwiak said last season the offensive line struggled to finish plays with authority. He said the Bulls need to learn how to follow through with their blocking and Oderinde is already teaching them how to do so.
“One of the biggest things we couldn’t do was finish,” Jozwiak said. “When we’re out running or in the gym lifting, Coach O is always there to enforce the finish. We don’t run to the line, but we run 10 yards past the line. It’s something he has instilled in us and I think everyone is buying into it.”
In the past 10 years since his time at Western Kentucky, Oderinde said strength and conditioning has come a long way and this makes it easier for him to focus on the players.
“It’s changed a lot,” Oderinde said. “At Western Kentucky our strength coach was our defensive coordinator and our linebackers’ coach, so he pretty much wore three hats. Strength and conditioning wasn’t the biggest of the hats. It was important, but it wasn’t as important as it is now.”
Part of this growing emphasis means Oderinde has more resources at his disposal and can work with the team more efficiently. He believes he can improve the physicality of the entire team simply by employing position-specific workouts.
Jozwiak believes these workouts, something former strength and conditioning coordinator Hans Straub didn’t use, are already helping the team become stronger.
“Coach O does a lot of position-specific lifting,” Jozwiak said. “For the offensive line, we’re in the trenches so we work on our backs and arms. His position specific-workouts are right on point and they’re already helping tremendously.”
Another way that Oderinde plans to make the Bulls into champions is by maintaining the athletes’ nutrition.
Due to an NCAA rule change, schools are now allowed to feed athletes unlimited meals on campus. Oderinde plans to take advantage of this new rule by connecting USF Athletics with Champion’s Choice to supply the teams with convenient and nutritional meals.
Jozwiak said he thinks the rule change will help improve the team’s fitness right off the bat.
Taggart and company have acknowledged that building a champion takes hard work and time, but Oderinde gets the sense Taggart knows how to win from his days at Western Kentucky, where they spent time on the same team.
“As Coach Taggart was finishing his career, I was getting to Western Kentucky, and he was also a coach when I was a player,” Oderinde said. “Coach Taggart has always been a winner and he’s one heck of a competitor who knows his stuff.”
After Straub resigned following his controversial tweet about former USF defensive end Aaron Lynch getting drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, the door was opened for Oderinde and Taggart to reunite at USF in an effort to build a winning program.