OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- One of the biggest questions at the start of this year’s Baltimore Ravens training camp is how their defense will get to the quarterback after losing its top two most accomplished outside linebackers.
When it comes to a new identity, no one is more suited to headline the Ravens’ changed pass rush than Odafe Oweh.
Three months ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Jayson Oweh had been selected by Baltimore in the first round. Shortly afterward, Oweh said in a press conference that he now wanted to go by Odafe, his Nigerian first name.
Oweh went with Jayson, his middle name, for about 10 years because people had trouble saying Odafe correctly.
“I don’t care anymore,” Oweh told reporters with a smile. “You’re going to have to learn how to pronounce it.”
For the record, his first name is pronounced “uh-DAH-fay.” Another clarification: Oweh wants everyone to know that he didn’t plan a grand declaration for his name switch.
Oweh’s decision was just in the moment. After becoming the 31st player selected in this year’s draft, he was surrounded by his parents and all the people who supported him since childhood.
They were all calling him Odafe.
"I just felt how far I came, how far my parents have came, and the culture, and the heritage I grew up in ... It’s really how I got to where I am today,” Oweh said. "I just felt like I really wanted to start being myself.”
Oweh’s parents are both from Nigeria. His father Henry was born there, and his mother Tania moved there at age seven to attend school.
A few years before Odafe was born, Henry and Tania relocated to the United States, where they own a medical supply store. They wanted to give him a name that reflected his African heritage and touched upon the American dream.
"You come here, you work hard, and you make it, and so that was what we projected,” Tania said. “That’s what we believed would be the pathway for us, and ultimately, our kids."
Odafe’s name comes from the Urhobo tribe, his father’s ethnic group which primarily resides in southwest Nigeria. It means: a wealthy individual.
Growing up in New Jersey, Oweh didn’t see many children who looked like him and no one had a name like his. The boys in school were named John or Ryan.
Classmates struggled to say Odafe. Some kids called him “Adafee.” Others would say “Adolfe.” The cruel ones would call him “Daffy Duck.”
It got to the point where Oweh felt he heard everyone say everything but his actual name.
“Everyone had always botched that name,” Oweh said. "I was like, all right, I’m tired of that.”
Before entering middle school, Oweh sat down with his parents to let them know he didn’t want to go by Odafe in class anymore. His mother tried to persuade him not to do so. She told him that he had to hold people accountable to what he wanted. When they said his name wrong, he should correct them.
But he went with the name switch, and it was Jayson Oweh who was the No. 2 high school football recruit in New Jersey and then a first-team All-Big Ten defender at Penn State.
No one knew that would ever change, even those closest to Oweh. After he was drafted by the Ravens, Oweh stepped outside his celebratory house to speak to reporters on a teleconference. By the time he had returned to the party inside, his parents had heard he wanted to be called Odafe in the NFL.
Oweh didn’t understand the depth of the name change until he saw his mother and father crying. They hugged him, saying they’ve been waiting for him to accept his heritage and his true character.
"I was proud. I was so proud,” Tania said. "Because I saw what I now felt like a maturation. I just felt like he was coming full circle. I saw a man who was comfortable with himself. I saw the evolution from when I was trying to convince him not to change his name, and he was adamant on changing his name, to now telling me that, 'Mom, you know what. They’re gonna love to pronounce my name.’”
Unexpected crossover to football
Oweh wouldn’t be headed into his first NFL training camp if he didn’t make another pivotal change.
His first love was basketball. His dream was to make it to the NBA. In order to achieve that, Oweh looked at going to one of the most prestigious high school basketball programs in New Jersey.
Before his junior year, Oweh took a visit to the Blair Academy, where he had a fortuitous run-in at the admissions office. While waiting to get a tour of the school from the basketball coach, Oweh was first greeted by Jim Saylor, the football coach.
Floored by Oweh’s size, Saylor asked Oweh if he was there for football. When Oweh explained he was a basketball player, Saylor said, “You have a future in football.”
Oweh had never considered playing football. His old high school didn’t even have a football team. At Blair, there was a requirement to play two sports, which ticked off Oweh because he wanted to focus solely on basketball. On top of that, his phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
“The football coach would just keep on calling me, you know, harassing me,” Oweh said. "He wouldn’t let it go. So I went in for a summer camp, started working out and I’ve loved it ever since then.”
Playing football for the first time at 16 years old, Oweh didn’t know how to line up in a three-point stance. He did, however, bring competitiveness and a willingness to learn to the field.
A month into football season, Tania received a call from the basketball coach. “We have a problem on our hands,” Joe Mantegna told Oweh’s mother.
Her heart dropped. Tania jumped into her car and frantically made the 90-minute drive to the school. When Mantegna saw the worried look on her face, he said, “Oh, I should have told you. It’s a good problem!”
Oweh was playing so well in football that he was drawing interest from colleges for both sports. He was going to have to decide which one to pursue long-term.
The coaches explained to Oweh that he was good enough in basketball to get a college scholarship. But his athletic gifts in football gave him a better chance to play professionally.
"I knew that I had to make a business decision,” Oweh said.
Sacking the critics
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called Oweh the toughest defensive player to evaluate in this year’s draft class.
Oweh has all the physical tools to get after the quarterback. He’s explosive with the prototypical NFL build.
All Oweh lacks is experience and statistics. He’s a pass-rush prospect who didn’t have any sacks in his final season at Penn State, which was the label he carried throughout the pre-draft process.
Oweh tried to block out all of the criticism, but he was not silent about his motivation. From the start of the draft, his mother heard Oweh say “I’m going to show you what you passed up on” after every pick he wasn’t selected.
When the Ravens were on the clock with the No. 31 pick, Oweh got a phone call. But he couldn’t hear who was on the other end because of the uproar from his family. Then, the caller hung up.
"I was going to be really disappointed if I waited that long and it was a spam call,” Oweh said. "Then [the Ravens] called back, and the moment happened.”
The Ravens made Oweh the first defensive end/outside linebacker in the past 25 years to get selected in the first round after failing to record a sack in his final college season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But Baltimore has shown it won’t use a high draft pick on just any player at this position. After Terrell Suggs in 2003, Oweh is the second pass-rusher the Ravens have ever drafted in the first round in their history.
During Oweh’s introductory press conference, Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said he couldn’t wait for everyone to see how “special” Oweh was going to be and expressed confidence in him getting to the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow.
Martindale brought up how Pro Bowl pass-rusher Danielle Hunter had 1.5 sacks in his final season at LSU. Hunter, who is 6 feet 5, 250 pounds like Oweh, has since recorded 54.5 sacks in five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
“What [Oweh] does when you put on the tape, is there is no one that I saw at that position that gets to the football as fast as he does, and plays as hard as he does,” Martindale said. "And I think the thing that this city is going to really love is when he gets there, he’s not in a good mood.”
Oweh wowed Baltimore beyond the tape leading up to the draft. After running Oweh through drills at Penn State, Ravens outside linebacker coach Drew Wilkins called Martindale to tell him that it was the best workout that he’d ever witnessed.
While Oweh’s athleticism and measurables are off the charts, Wilkins was impressed by how Oweh took instruction, which is key to the development of a prospect who’s only played the game for five years. From one rep to the next, Wilkins made suggestions about footwork and hand placement.
“The next rep would be even better than the last,” Wilkins said. "So, the thought was, ‘OK, if he got that good in 10 minutes, what’s he going to do in a training camp?’”
During the offseason practices, Oweh has chased plays 30 yards down the field and has looked fast doing it. He got better every day as a pass rusher, and the expectation is he’ll be a dynamic one-on-one edge rusher once he puts it all together. Oweh has a prime chance to become the Ravens’ next impact pass-rusher after Baltimore lost Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency.
For Oweh, it’s a new team, a new opportunity and a new identity.
“In terms of my name, it feels good, because I’m starting a new chapter,” Oweh said. "It feels good to start new and just work hard and really try to flip the script and prove a lot of doubters wrong.”