Kenneth Olugbode dispenses wisdom, big hits for CU Buffs defense

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado linebacker Kenneth Olugbode has been making an impact on and off the field this season.

It’s always good to have an older brother who has your back. Rick Gamboa embraced that dynamic last year.

As he settled into his role as a starting linebacker for the Colorado Buffaloes as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Gamboa received constant reassurance every time he braced for a new play knowing Kenneth Olugbode at his side.

While the Buffs’ defense prepares for what they hope will be a bounce-back performance Saturday night in Colorado’s homecoming date against Arizona State at Folsom Field, Olugbode is preparing to begin the stretch run of his remarkably successful CU career. His impact has been meaningful on and off the field, from the stats he continues to pile up from his linebacker spot to the way he has mentored younger players like Gamboa.

“He’s been like a big brother almost,” Gamboa said. “He’s been playing since his freshman year and he has a lot of experience. Some of the things I don’t always see, he helps me out with. The communication we have between us on the field really helps a lot. It really helps a lot when you have that trust between two guys.”

Gamboa has reaped the benefits of Olugbode’s ball-hawking habits in each of the past two weeks.

In a 47-6 rout of Oregon State on Oct. 1, it was Olugbode who delivered a perfectly-timed hit late in the first half as Beavers running back Artavis Pierce attempted to rein in a pass. The deflection landed in the arms of Gamboa, who received the bulk of the glory for the play with an easy 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The duo made a quick mark last week against USC as well. With the Trojans marching toward a touchdown on their opening drive, Gamboa was attempting to drag down scrambling USC quarterback Sam Darnold near the goal line when the ball came loose. Initially the Twitter-verse erupted with praise for Gamboa making such a critical takeaway that saved points, but it actually was a flying hit from Olugbode that jarred the ball loose and spared the Buffs from an immediate deficit.

“My freshman year I had older guys who did the same thing for me, and as you get older you realize you have to step into that role and lead verbally,” Olugbode said. “A turnover is a turnover, and (those plays) go to the whole team. That’s all that matters.”

The third of three brothers to play Division I football — one played safety at Stanford, the other was a running back at Idaho — Olugbode first caught the eye of head coach Mike MacIntyre as a ninth-grade quarterback in his hometown of San Jose while MacIntyre was the head coach at San Jose State. Seven years later, Olugbode has become a three-season fixture on CU’s defense.

In his first year as a full-time starter in 2014 Olugbode led the Buffs in tackles. He celebrated his 20th birthday last year with a critical 60-yard interception return for a touchdown in CU’s win against Colorado State in the Rocky Mountain Showdown and eventually finished third on the team in tackles despite missing two games due to injury.

Olugbode is well on his way to leading the Buffs in tackles again this year, as he heads into the Arizona State game with a team-leading total of 58. (Gamboa is a somewhat distant second with 43.) With his forced fumble and interception at USC adding to a ledger that includes a fumble recovery against CSU, Olugbode has played a central role in the Buffs’ 13 total takeaways and plus-seven turnover margin this season.

“He’s relentless,” defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said. “That’s the word to describe him. Relentless. He’s very wise beyond his years. He has good vision. He understands defense and he communicates it well.”

Perhaps no player was more frustrated by a defensive effort at USC that included an uncharacteristic number of missed tackles and a season-most 548 yards allowed than Olugbode. The man who generally is the team’s best tackler vows the story will be different Saturday against the Sun Devils.

“Make tackles. That was our biggest mistake last week,” Olugbode said. “That’s what we have to focus on.”

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