METAIRIE, La. — Of all the players who ply their trade on the Saints defensive line, Remi Ayodele stands out for being the prototypical run stuffer up the middle.
He’s listed at 318 lbs., the biggest of a group that includes Will Smith (282), Alex Brown (260), Jimmy Wilkerson (270) and Sedrick Ellis (307).
And yet, talk to any of his teammates and you quickly find out that Ayodele is looking at the world through different eyes.
“Remi, being that he’s 330, he sometimes thinks he’s 180,” Smith said. “That causes a problem because when you’re 330, you can’t wear the same things as someone who is 180 wears. He doesn’t understand that yet.”
Before you try to imagine that image, there’s more.
“In his mind, I think he thinks he is a running back,” left guard Carl Nicks said. “He’s like, ‘man, they need to put me in the backfield. I can get a yard.’ Everybody thinks they’re something else other than what they really are. I think I can be a tight end.”
In spite of, or possibly because of, Ayodele’s ability to think outside the box, he’s having his most success ever as a fourth-year undrafted pro out of Oklahoma.
His success has translated into defensive brilliance by the Saints, who enter Thursday’s Thanksgiving showdown at Dallas as the league’s No. 4-ranked defense. That includes 13th against the run, where opponents record only 105.4 yards per game on the ground.
“He’s playing very consistently, which is a complement when you’re playing nose,” Head Coach Sean Payton said. “Week in and week out we know what we have and he’s been performing at that level. He understands exactly what we’re looking for in the defense and within the framework of his position and he has done well the first half here.”
Ayodele isn’t as recognizable to the average fan as Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper or Ellis.
And that’s what drove him to change some things this offseason, namely what he worked out.
“I’m playing alongside some great guys,” Ayodele said. “I look at it I’m the free agent. All these draft picks, I want to live up to their standards a little bit I guess you could say. I took it kind of personal.”
So he rededicated himself to workouts, stressing strengthening his legs so he could break up double teams and avoid chip blocks.
He took film from the last month of the Saints regular season to his home in Dallas where he watched it, diagramming what went wrong for him against Dallas and Tampa Bay, the first two losses that blemished the Saints at-that-point perfect record.
“I was like, well, if you hold this hole a little stronger we’d be a little stronger on the defensive side of the ball,” Ayodele said. “A lot more studying and more leg work, really.”
He added, “I’m a nose guard and everything starts in the middle. I really focused on it this offseason. … We’re only going to be as good as the guys are up the middle against the run.”
Ayodele has recorded 25 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble and constantly clogs up the middle, giving middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma ample time to read the play and make the tackle. Vilma leads the team with 62 tackles.
He returned to keys and maxims that his mentor Jerry Schmidt, University of Oklahoma Director of Sports Enhancement, taught him in college from 2004-5.
Foundation for his future
Schmidt recalls fondly how driven Ayodele was at Oklahoma.
That’s probably one of the reasons Ayodele is so fond of Schmidt, whom he calls “Shmitty.”
“He always pushed us, never let us quit,” Ayodele said. “We spent more time with our strength coaches than anybody.”
Schmidt remembers Ayodele’s affable yet hard-working way about himself. If there was a drill that needed to be finished, Ayodele was the one who worked at it all the way through, the Oklahoma coach said.
While others were making names for themselves, Ayodele didn’t care for the all-star status and that’s partly why he’s in the NFL today, Schmidt said.
“He’s just kind of a grinder,” he said. “Everybody else was going to get the credit. At the end, he was going to be the guy. Maybe not the most talented, but he had the biggest heart. There are not a lot of those guys around anymore.”
The other reason Ayodele is sticking?
“They get ready to get cut, they get ready to get out of the league and they realize they have to go back and do it the right way,” Schmidt said.
Work ethic or not, Ayodele is still a self-described weirdo. In fact, even the spelling of his clothing line is off-the-beaten path.
Ayodele, who says he has always loved fashion, can be found wearing around pajama bottoms made by his company Wierdoz.
And he rocks a Mohawk in his media guide picture and keeps one throughout the season.
“He’s weird as far as his haircut and the way he dressed,” Nicks said. “I wouldn’t dress like he dresses.”
The clothing line is something he does with an old friend of his that he grew up with. When asked where the influence comes from, he answers in the only way he knows how.
“The magic happens all in my place in Dallas,” Ayodele says. “I shut the blinds down, turn some music on and go to work.”
He added, “We’re making a clothing line for everybody to feel free to do what you want to do and be yourself.”
But Ayodele’s real contributions come on the field and in the locker room.
He was an undrafted rookie free, signing with the Patriots, before going to Baltimore, Dallas, back to Baltimore, back to Dallas, was shipped to Frankfurt for NFL Europe, Atlanta, Dallas again and finally by the Saints.
He understands the plight of those undrafted and trying to make it in the league. That’s why he tries to help those who come into the NFL the same way he did.
“It’s weird now coming into camp seeing guys where I was as an undrafted guy,” Ayodele said. “Nervous. Didn’t know what was going to happen. Now, I’m talking to those guys and telling them actually what they need to do to make it.”
He tells them to go 100 percent and if they don’t make it, it happens, adding that as long as they can respect themselves for giving it their all, they have nothing to be ashamed about.
That’s how he still comes into camp every year and as long as he’s in the locker room, he’ll continue helping out those in need.
But he’ll also continue being Remi, and that’s all anyone can ask for.
“It’s a serious business,” Ayodele said. “I’ve been through a lot. I always try to look at the positives. I’m happy. I could be doing something else. I always try to stay positive and I always try to stay loose. Even if you see me in the locker room before the game, I’m the only one with a smile. Everybody else is geeked up and I’m the only one in there making fun of somebody’s shoes.
“That’s just always been me.