Too big for soccer, Villanova's Ijalana may be ready for NFL

Posted: April 27, 2011

One of the first things any athlete learns is that he has to listen to what his body tells him.

Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon's favorite sport as a child was soccer, but as he continued to sprout, topping out at 7 feet, it became evident that maybe basketball was a better way to go. "The Dream" won two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets and in 2008 was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, so the switch was more than justified.

And so it is for Ben Ijalana, son of Nigerian immigrants, whose first sporting love, soccer, regretfully had to be put aside because he simply outgrew it. The difference between him and Olajuwon, however, is that it wasn't so much that Ijalana became too tall, it was more that he became too wide.

The 6-4, 320-pound Ijalana, who started 53 consecutive games for Villanova, could be selected as soon as the late first round of the NFL draft, which begins tomorrow night, and is not expected to still be on the board after the completion of the second round. He played left tackle for the Wildcats but is projected by most NFL teams as a guard.

Not that Ijalana professes to have a preference as to where he will line up as a pro. He just wants to go wherever he is needed and do what he does best, which is to use his size, strength and agility to move an opposing player somewhere where he doesn't want to go.

"Very true," Ijalana said when reminded that the only time offensive linemen tend to be noticed by the average fan in the stands is when they're beaten on a play. "Every day out there at practice, it's a battle of pride. One of my favorite things, if you can imagine this, is moving somebody really big who doesn't want to be moved.

"Offensive linemen move people. That's what we do. There's something very satisfying about moving somebody who doesn't want to be moved. You're, like, 'OK, I'm going to take you from Point A to Point B now.' There's so much satisfaction in doing that in the running game.

"And there's satisfaction when someone is running at you, and you're backpedaling, and you keep him away from your quarterback.

"I happen to believe that we, the offensive linemen, directly affect every play. Take away the o-linemen and football would just be seven-on-seven - flag football. No, we don't get to score touchdowns, but we get to put our hands on people and move them. That's the fun part of the game for someone like me."

The hidden pleasures of football, at least for road-graders like Ijalana, were not always so evident. Growing up, he dreamed of scoring goals in the World Cup on nifty scissors-kicks and headers. But, like Olajuwon, his changing anatomy dictated that he follow a different calling.

"I still love soccer," he said. "It's awesome. Kids running around, having fun. It's one of my first loves. But eventually I got too big for it. I became, um, more physical in nature.

"It was only natural that football would be my next sport. All my buddies did it, and I picked it up in high school [Rancocas Valley, in Mount Holly, N.J.]. It was fun, too."

For all that Ijalana did on the field at Villanova - he was a two-time Football Championship Subdivision All-America and a key figure for the Wildcats' 2009 team that won the national title - he is still a bit of a question mark to pro scouts who aren't happy unless they have recorded and analyzed every possible bit of data.

Ijalana underwent surgery for a double sports hernia on Dec. 28. The operation prevented him from playing in the Senior Bowl or being available for anything other than team interviews at the Combine. He was still somewhat limited physically at Villanova's Pro Day on April 6, but he said he is 100 percent healthy now and ready to take his game to the highest level.

"I thought I had it all figured out," he said. "Win a second national championship [Villanova was eliminated by eventual titlist Eastern Washington in the semifinals], play in the Senior Bowl, go to the Combine, do my thing on Pro Day. Boom, boom, boom. But the injury got me sidetracked. I had to take the time to take care of my body."

So now he's playing a waiting game, on two fronts. He's still in school, working on a term paper, and will receive his degree in criminal justice on May 15.

"Thursday is my last day of class," he said. "I guess I'll be knocking off two birds with one stone."

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