Browns DT finds unlikely mentor in Bengals' Geno Atkins

BEREA, Ohio -- When the Cleveland Browns made Larry Ogunjobi the 65th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, he soon looked for a veteran player he could learn from.

He connected with speed and strength coach Chip Smith to see what NFL players he had in his program in Atlanta. Enter six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals.

"When he called and asked what defensive tackles I have working with me, I told him I have the guy I believe is one of the best in the league in Geno Atkins," Smith said. "I respect Geno and I thought Geno would be perfect."

Just because Atkins works with Smith and came highly recommended didn’t mean he would be willing to train Ogunjobi and teach him the tricks of the trade, however.

But that didn’t deter the rookie from taking a chance.

"I kind of just went out on a limb, got my hotel room, booked the rental car, got a flight and just shot out to Atlanta," Ogunjobi said. "I didn’t know if Geno was even going to rock with me or help me out, but he welcomed me with open arms."

Ogunjobi said their first conversation was mostly him doing the talking while Atkins just said "OK" after every sentence. After a while, they were watching film together and creating a bond that remains strong.

"Once we started hanging out and watching film together, I started to develop that relationship," Ogunjobi said. "Everything you do, it’s something you have to build, and now we are really tight. I can call him at any time if I need help with something or I need to understand something better."

Smith enjoyed how well his two students seemed to mesh right away.

"They are a lot alike in character and they hit it off, they quickly became best buddies," Smith said. "Geno took him under his wing and mentored him. I believe they still talk almost daily."

After the first offseason of training with Atkins and learning about life in the NFL, Ogunjobi played in 14 games for the Browns in 2017, recording 32 tackles and one sack. Heading into his second season, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Ogunjobi is still taking in all the advice he can from Atkins.

"I trained with him this past offseason in Atlanta every day," Ogunjobi said. "I am always sending him film to help me critique my game and tell me what I need to work on. If things are going a certain way, I call him for advice and we talk every day about the goals I have and things I want to accomplish this year."

Working with Atkins, who is famously media shy, has helped Ogunjobi learn the details of the three-technique to go along with his knowledge and skill at nose tackle, his primary position in college at Charlotte. It was the finer points of the training that really stood out to Smith as he watched the bond form between them.

"We work hard here, usually six hours a day," Smith said. "After that, Geno and Larry would go over playbook and terminology together. It was so much more than just the training. It was the little tidbits and details they worked on together every day."

That extra bit of training already has paid off for Ogunjobi in his second NFL season. Having the ability to slide back and forth between the two positions has allowed the 24-year-old to get more reps with players going down to injury in training camp.

And he is ready to do whatever the coaches ask of him.

"I feel every day when you come out to work and you grind and you work as hard as we have been and you have injuries, you try to set yourself up for this opportunity to improve yourself," Ogunjobi said. "The way the coaches see me, they feel like I have the ability to play both positions, and I can. So whatever they need me to do, I’m more than happy to do."

Browns coach Hue Jackson knows Atkins from his days on the Bengals staff and believes he is a good player for Ogunjobi to pattern his game after.

"We were at breakfast, and he just started talking about the people he was working with. He mentioned Geno Atkins and I go, ‘What a mentor,’" Jackson said. "Geno kind of came up through the ranks and became one of the best defensive linemen in football. Hopefully, that will happen for Larry. What a guy to pattern your game after. I think that Geno is a tremendous football player and person."

Ogunjobi, who is a "sponge" according to Smith, also has been in contact with Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The two players share an agent. He has used the conversations with Atkins and Donald to ask questions after watching film on both players.

"This is a really egotistical game and a lot of guys don’t want to ask for help, but I am more than welcome to it because I have a lot to learn and I want to learn," Ogunjobi said. "In order to be the best version of myself and the best possible player I can be for my team, I feel like I have to ask questions."

Smith is happy that his pairing of a Brown and a Bengal has worked out so well for both.

"I know the traditional hate between the Browns and Bengals," Smith said. "It just does my heart good to see Geno and Larry working together."