Above: Chino Hills alum Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will play in Monday’s 98th Rose Bowl Game. (Photo provided by Eric Evans/Oregon Sports Information)
University of Oregon football coach Chip Kelly has one rule: The best players, regardless of class, play. He’s lived up to that statement, showing no qualms to play talented, but inexperienced freshman, including two years ago when running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner found their way into the lineup, and this year is no different. One of those is former Chino Hills star Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who has made a sudden impact for the Ducks, being part of defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s seven defensive-back rotation.
Below is today’s story of Ekpre-Olomu.
By Steve Ramirez
LOS ANGELES - So much for the adage that freshmen are supposed to be seen, but not heard.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is one of the exceptions.
The former Chino Hills High School star, despite his youthful status, not only has found his way on the field for the Oregon football team but he’s made an impact in the Ducks’ defensive back rotation.
He will put his talents on display when Oregon faces Wisconsin on Monday in the 98th Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena.
“For myself, I always have high expectations,” said Ekpre-Olomu, who has played in all 13 games and is the No. 2 cornerback behind starters Anthony Gildon and Terrance Mitchell. “Of course, I wanted to play this year. I got to do that. Now I’m just working my way up the depth chart trying to get more and more playing time.”
Ekpre-Olomu brought a lot of ability to Eugene. He was one of the better defensive backs in the CIF-Southern Section last season, when he earned all-state and All-Inland Division honors. He also was named Sierra League MVP.
But it takes more than talent to find a spot in Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s system. And Ekpre-Olomu, who holds the Chino Hills record for most interceptions in a season with eight, showed his worth early.
“It was just hard work,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “You have to do more work than the other guys. That might be just staying after practice, getting in more work, doing more drills by yourself. You just do whatever it takes.
“The hardest part was just learning the playbook. It’s far more advanced than high school. Once you get that down, then you get to start playing and doing well, like you know you can.”
He got his shot in the opener, a 41-27 loss to No. 1 Louisiana State.
“I’m not going to lie, the first play you’re nervous,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “But after that, it just goes back to how you used to feel in high school.
“You’re just excited that you’re on the field, especially with that big crowd watching you. It makes you feel a lot better.”
Another factor for Ekpre-Olomu is Aliotti’s defensive philosophy, which is to rotate about 22-25 players per game. It’s mainly because of the fast-paced play of Oregon’s offense, which has averaged more than 40 points a game the past three seasons. The Ducks’ quick-strike ability means more plays on the field for the defense, which forces Aliotti to substitute more freely.
“You just have to make sure you’re conditioned well,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “We work on our conditioning all the time in practice because we are probably on the field more than most teams, some 30 to 40 plays (more).
“We’ve been doing (it) the whole season, and we have the defensive backs to do that. When one person comes out, we have enough depth where we’re not going to miss a beat.”
It’s also a young group, with Gildon and rover Eddie Pleasant the only seniors. Ekpre-Olomu is a true freshman, with fellow corners Mitchell and Troy Hill being redshirt freshmen. The unit also features two sophomores.
“They’re very young,” the veteran Pleasant said. “They’re freshmen. That’s not the weakness of our defense. But that’s the most inexperienced part of our defense.
“I think they do a great job. We wouldn’t be in the position that we’re in today if it weren’t for (them).”
Monday might be the group’s biggest challenge.
Wisconsin features a run-first offense featuring Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball (1,759 yards, 32 touchdowns rushing). But the Badgers have the ability to get the ball downfield with receivers Nick Toon and Jar Abbrederis, who have combined for 106 receptions, 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“They like to run the ball a lot and like to isolate and get as many one-on-one plays with their receivers,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “We, as defensive backs, just have to make sure we’re at the top of our game.
“Both receivers have over 50 catches, so you can’t really say they have one go-to guy. Whichever guy is on your side (of the field), you just have to (lock) them up.”
This also will be a home game for Ekpre-Olomu. It being the Rose Bowl makes it the best of both worlds for the freshman.
“It makes it a lot better being home,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “Not only can my family see me, but also everyone I know who lives around here can see me play in the Rose Bowl, too. I’m blessed to have that.”