When D.J. Reader was at Grimsley High School, a few of his biggest plays came with him lined up at fullback. Reader was a 6-foot-3, 325-pound high school senior, and Grimsley’s football team in North Carolina often lined Reader up in the backfield and had him barrel through the line of scrimmage for a first down.
One of the only players who could stop him was Ragsdale High School’s Larry Ogunjobi.
“I got him,” Ogunjobi said. “They had (Reader) playing fullback, and he thought he would just run the ball. Nope.”
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Ten years later, Reader and Ogunjobi are back together as the Cincinnati Bengals projected starting defensive tackles in 2021.
It’s hard to find two Bengals players whose games have changed as much as Reader and Ogunjobi have on their way to the NFL. In high school, Reader was a two-way player and was recruited as an offensive guard. But even his path to the NFL was more straightforward than Ogunjobi’s.
“I’ve watched (Ogunjobi) grow and got to know him a lot more in the league,” Reader said. “I know he’s a really, really good player. I love his game. I love what he’s done to his body. If you’ve known him since high school like I’ve known him, you’d see how much he’s changed his body and just how much of a missile he has become.”
Ogunjobi started playing football during his sophomore year because his mother took away his Xbox. At the time, Ogunjobi weighed around 350 pounds, and he said he couldn’t even get into a football stance if he had wanted to.
Ogunjobi worked out with trainer Robert Mitchell, and they argued about whether or not Ogunjobi would even play football. Mitchell won the argument, and eventually Ogunjobi lost 100 pounds, made the varsity team at Ragsdale and matched up with players like Reader.
“You have to go out there and you have to earn it, you have to take it,” Ogunjobi said. “Being here is an opportunity for a fresh start to continue to do what I love with a new team, a new opportunity, a new slate.”
After signing with the Bengals during 2021 free agency, Ogunjobi will truly have a new opportunity.
In 2021, Ogunjobi is expected to line up alongside Reader as the Bengals starting defensive tackles. For Cincinnati, that will be a nearly entirely different looking group of players than what they’ve had.
Since the start of his college career, Ogunjobi has been labeled as a run-stopping defensive tackle. He often lined up right over the center, a role Reader plays with the Bengals, and didn’t receive many opportunities to be a threat as a pass rusher with the Cleveland Browns.
Ogunjobi only had 14.5 career sacks over four seasons with the Browns, but the Bengals expect him to be their best pass interior rushing threat this season.
“I'm not going to put any limit on it,” Ogunjobi said. “I just want to go out there and work, make plays. D.J.'s season got cut short last year but he's healthy now, he's looking good. I'm just here to make plays, so I'm excited about what we can do and we're just going to come out there and work.”
Among any position group in 2021, the Bengals defensive line will look the most different from last year.
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The Bengals have eight defensive tackles on the roster in 2021, and those eight players have played a combined 1,361 snaps for Cincinnati. Last season, the Bengals defense was on the field for 1,061 snaps, so Cincinnati’s entire defensive tackle position group has been on the field with the team for the equivalent of just over a full season.
The defensive tackle with the most experience with the Bengals is Josh Tupou, a 2017 undrafted free agent with seven career starts. The defensive tackle with the next most experience with the Bengals is Mike Daniels, who signed with the team in 2020 as a backup.
Defensive end Sam Hubbard is the only Bengals defensive lineman assured to have exactly the same role as he had at the end of last season.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that play ball and are confident in themselves,” Reader said. “You watch guys come from other teams and guys who have played a lot of ball come over to this team, they just want to make this team better. The expectation is high.”
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Reader, who became the highest paid nose tackle in the NFL when he signed with the Bengals in 2020, only played five games last season due to a season-ending quad injury. He’s expected to return, and Reader said he “restructured” his body during the offseason so he could be a stronger 320-pound player.
Behind Reader and Ogunjobi, the Bengals drafted Tyler Shelvin in the fourth round, and he’ll compete with Daniels, Tupou and Renell Wren to be the backup defensive tackles. One of the bigger schematic differences on the defense this season could be how the Bengals use their defensive ends, and Trey Hendrickson, rookie Cam Sample and Hubbard could also line up inside in 2021.
Last season, Bengals defensive tackles only had three total sacks. In 2021, Reader said he wants the Bengals pass rush to be one of the reasons Cincinnati wins games.
“We don’t want to just go out there and win games, we want to have a good defense that is going out there knowing the game is going to be on us,” Reader said. “We saw what we could do in flashes, we added pieces and we don’t want to fall off. We want to go forward.”