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November 29, 2013

Irabor sets example to be followed at ASU

There is a saying that leadership comes in all forms.

Some may lead loudly, some may do it quietly.

If you were to ask him, senior corner Osahon Irabor would probably prefer to lead purely by example and then only saying what he knows needs to be said. That is exactly what he has done in his three years and especially his senior year starting at Arizona State.

"It means every set and every rep," Irabor said. "That means everyone on the team is looking at you and looking at what you're doing every play. You're setting the example, so you don't get to take a play off. Being a leader means you have to have courage and you have to work the hardest."

According to his mom, Irabor was always active, always engaging in activity. Whether it was climbing something, jumping or just flat out running around like an energizer bunny, he was always doing something.

Ironically enough, out of everything he did growing up as a kid, playing football was never one of them.

At least, he didn't play until he was beginning high school.

Starting From Scratch

His freshman year was the beginning point in Irabor's path to building his skill, his future success and most importantly his mentality of leading by example.

Irabor began his career at Upland High School in Upland, Calif., a far-flung suburb of Los Angeles in an era known as the Inland Empire.

As a freshman, it probably didn't occur to coaches that Irabor had the untapped potential and raw skills that he would someday display.

That would soon change.

"His first year of playing football was his freshman year," high school position coach Mike Esquivel said. "He started as a Saturday player which is a reserve team. Those are guys that are development players. For the first six weeks he was on the Saturday team and on Week 7 against Los Osos as a freshman head coach Tim Salter moved him to the Thursday role. Ever since then, he's taken off."

Continuing into his sophomore year, Irabor continued to hone his skills, still playing on the Thursday squad.

After his sophomore year, coaches slowly began to realize the type of football player that they were going to have for another two years.

"He peaked really in the off-season between his sophomore and junior year," Esquivel said. We knew then that he had a huge potential to play at the next level. Sophomore year was more of development and then junior year we said, 'okay, he's going to be a big time playmaker for us.' The confidence he got boosted him and then he became a real leader for us."

After his sophomore year, the team participated in a summer seven-on-seven Adidas tournament which was where coaches began to see more than just solid skill and technique.

The camp was the first time where coaches really got some insight into Irabor's aggressive nature at the corner position. He stood out with his continuous physical presence and quickly showed his comfort level and tendency to make great plays within the secondary.

Not only did he show his defensive prowess, he also performed on the offensive end, which allowed coaches to play him on both sides of the ball his junior year.

At the end of his junior year, Irabor had amassed 41 tackles, two interceptions and two blocked punts. Additionally, he posted five games with four or more tackles.

Irabor also finished the year No. 3 on the team in receiving yards with 325 on only 11 receptions, an average of 29.6 yards per receptions and one touchdown.

Despite performing well on the offensive end throughout the year, coaches soon found out what Irabor was especially adept at.

"He loved one-on-one coverage," Esquivel said. "He had a little bit of swagger to him. He was never disrespectful but he was always a gamer. He would always kind of hype up his secondary just as he does now at ASU. Our defensive coordinator, he told him, 'Hey don't worry about me one-on-one. I have him.' He was so aggressive that he would jam these guys on the line of scrimmage and he wouldn't get off because he's physical. He's 5-foot-11 but he plays like he's 6-foot-2 with how aggressive he was and how physical he was as a junior so we knew right away we had nothing to worry about."

Not only did Irabor lead by example with his high school teammates, but he also knew when and what to say to them in order to get them in the right frame of mind.

"He knew his teammates very well and his words alone could get them fired up," Esquivel said. "For example, each player and personnel, he knew how to get them fired up and focused on the game. Off the field, nicest kid. On the field, he was a totally different kid. He brought energy to each player and he knew how to get them motivated based on their personality. He's been one of our best leaders. It wasn't by cussing and all this music but by simple words and it wasn't by yelling. Fundamentally, he also knew how to get them ready to go, and that is something you don't see too often. He was a coach out there and that's a special trait that we missed a lot when he left."

As a senior, Irabor continued to show his ability to be in great physical condition, playing both sides of the ball. He finished the season with 42 tackles and one blocked punt, but teams tested him very infrequently because he so dominated his side of the field.

His offensive numbers improved greatly his last year, finishing with 30 receptions for 637 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns.

Irabor's quick and rapid success is something that is mentioned by coaches every year at the school.

"He's an example we use every year when talking to first time players and looking at where they are at now," Esquivel said. "He's a perfect example of that. We use him every day as an example as what it takes to get to the next level."

The Next Chapter

Rated as a four-star prospect, a member of the national Rivals250 and the No. 28 corner in the country, Irabor was highly sought by not only ASU, but also by the likes of Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, Northwestern, Nebraska, UCLA and Washington, among others.

Going into the recruiting process, Irabor was not alone.

Irabor had special help from his brother, Austin Irabor. Growing up, Austin was seven years older than Osahon and said that a reason why they are so close is because whatever lesson Austin learned he would try to pass down to his little brother.

Having a great deal of trust in his older brother's opinion and words was something that was key for Irabor when choosing the school that he would eventually play for in college.

"When it came down to the recruiters and things like that, the letters, I'm the voice that he respected," Austin Irabor said. "When it came down to figuring out someone, sifting through the B.S., kind of reading a person, letting him know what a person's motives are or if they are being completely genuine. My B.S. meter is pretty extensive and usually pretty accurate so he respected that and looked to me for that."

While his mother and family wanted him to ultimately stay in California, according to his mom, there was something different that they felt about then-head coach Dennis Erickson.

When it came down to making the final decision, Irabor decided to attend ASU and committed to the Sun Devils on July 11, 2008.

"When he came to ASU, honestly that was probably one of his first real independent calls he made in his life," Austin Irabor said. "So for him to have the success that he's had there, he gets all the credit for that."

Dressed in Maroon and Gold

Having made his decision, one of the most heavily recruited defensive backs in the West entered his freshman year with aspiring hopes to get on the field and contended for playing time right out of the gates.

However, after just one week of practice, Irabor broke his scaphoid, a bone situated between the hand and forearm on the thumb side of the wrist. Requiring surgery to repair the damage, Irabor redshirted and spent the year on the practice squad.

The communication major had his breakout season his redshirt freshman year, starting his last seven games of the season and playing in 11 games. He had his first career interception late in fourth quarter of the opening game versus Portland State. Following the season, Irabor also earned Hard Hat player recognition for his work in ASU's offseason strength and conditioning program.

His sophomore year, Irabor played an even larger role in just his second year in the secondary. He started every game at the field cornerback position and finished among the team's top ten in total tackles for the year. Additionally, he had a season and team high nine tackles on Sept. 17 at Illinois and registered the only interception of the season by an ASU cornerback on Oct. 1 in a win versus Oregon State.

A year later, Irabor continued his efforts of working to become a shutdown corner. He led team with 14 passes defended on the season after having just six in 2011 while also not having a single pass interference called against him that year. His only interception of the season came against Arizona.

One Last Shot

Entering his last year, Irabor boasted an impressive stat. Entering a Thursday contest against Sacramento State, Irabor had the most consecutive starts in the Pac-12 with 34. With a final game against Arizona, the streak will increase to 45.

This season, Irabor, along with a couple other seniors, took it upon themselves to finish the year with no regrets.

"Something that really changed me was the year that Coach [Erickson] got fired and we lost all of those games in a row," Irabor said. "We were in a similar position that we were in this year but we just didn't have the overall leadership and some of that was on us, the Class of 2009. We didn't understand how to win and I think we definitely learned from that. It's something that's profound in our development as a team and individual players, being at the top and then falling back to the bottom and watching all the praise go away. We said we never wanted to feel that we again."

One of Irabor's closest friends is fellow senior, safety Alden Darby, a player who lines up behind him every play on the boundary side of the field.

Communication between the two is crucial on each play and both know it.

"Me and Osahon, man, we are really tight," Darby said. "That's my brother out there. We're like Siamese twins out there on the field. We go out there, we're confident in each other and he knows I have his back at the safety position. I know he's going to make plays and if I tell him I have his help somewhere he knows 100 percent that I'm going to be there. If I do mess up and I'm not there or he messes up, we both know and say, 'hey man, that's not us. Let's get it together.' He and I are really tight out there and that's my brother."

Leading by example is something that not only Irabor takes great pride in but also something that he and Darby really made the mindset between each other before the season started.

"We just tell each other every day we can't wait too far to not go hard," Darby said. "Us being seniors and us being here through the ups and downs at Arizona State, we know how important this is and how important the season is. We take it among ourselves to go out there and lead by example by going hard, working through pain, the strain and giving it our all."

Both seniors wore the prestigious No. 42 Pat Tillman practice jersey early on in the season. But Irabor is the only Sun Devil to have worn it all season.

"Last year he had a good attitude and a good effort," cornerbacks coach Joe Lorig said. "This year, I'm seeing a spectacular attitude and a spectacular effort, which is our standard. It's very hard to get that thing (Tillman jersey), but it's even harder to keep, which he's done."

While both lead newcomers and younger players by example, Darby tends to be the more vocal one and does his teaching through words.

When highly-touted junior college transfer wide receiver Jaelen Strong arrived and it was time to head to the woods at Camp Tontozona, Irabor didn't say much and preferred to do his teaching to Strong on the field.

Throughout camp, Irabor was matched up with the big-bodied and talented 6-foot-4 newcomer. He made each rep that Strong took as difficult for him as possible, in effort to improve both men.

One particular play at Tontozona, Irabor was pressed up against Strong on the seven yard line in a designated third and goal situation.

On a slant route to the inside, Strong used his size and quickness to get clean separation from Irabor. As the play developed, it seemed that within a second or two, Strong would walk into the end zone untouched.

Irabor wasn't about to let him off that easily.

On a perfectly thrown ball by junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, Strong seemed to slow down just a little bit as the ball was arriving, probably thinking that he was in the clear. Irabor recovered quickly and eventually ended up jarring the ball away from Strong.

Turning around immediately, Irabor put up his index finger and shook it at Strong as if to remind him that anything less than 100 percent effort to a play's completion won't be enough.

Guarding the go-to players on the field like Strong is the quality that Irabor points to as being the most proud of in his career.

"You know, I've played the boundary corner for the past two years," Irabor said. "That means guarding the other team's No. 1 (receiver). The boundary is where the most action happens. It's man on man. Being able to shut down that side of the field is something I take a lot of pride in. If there isn't a lot of balls coming my way that means I had a great practice or game, and that's my goal."

The never-give-up attitude is something Irabor said is a huge factor in what makes a leader, especially on a football field.

It's an attitude that has also continuously caught the attention of coaches.

"Well he's a great competitor," secondary coach Chris Ball said. "That's the best thing about him. I think he's the most competitive guy I've ever been around when it comes to Saturday afternoon and he's an extremely hard worker. He's improved his game even more by becoming more physical and he's a big-time football player. He's also a big-time person who's got very high character, tremendous work ethic and he's really, really smart. We're getting a lot out of him and if you had to pick a guy right now he's probably one of the best players on our defense."

Yes, he started late. Yes, he didn't get to experience the emotion and action of the gridiron until his junior year of high school.

In the end though, Irabor saw an opportunity to better himself and ran with it. Now, the 5-foot-11, 186 pound senior has the biggest challenge of his life staring him in the face.

The challenge of taking it one step further, the step to professionalism.

It's going to be tough; it's going to be new.

However, given the chance, just as he has at two different levels in his life, Irabor just might pull through and surprise some yet again.


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