UNIVERSITY PARK — There’s a bit of confusion when it comes to pronouncing C.J. Olaniyan’s last name.
Penn State’s 2012 football media guide reads: O-lan-EUN.
The most recent Nittany Lion yearbook lists Oh-LAWN-ee-YAN as the proper utterance.
Coach Bill O’Brien says: Oh-LAN-yawn.
Different teammates add their own verbal stylings to the pronunciation.
Talk about flying under the radar — even the junior defensive end’s first name is shrouded in mystery. The truth is, C.J. doesn’t stand for anything.
“That’s his nickname,” Olaniyan’s high school coach Tom Milanov says. “Everyone knows him as C.J., but I said, ‘Your real, given name is a lot cooler than your nickname. Kazeem. That sounds pretty dominant. That sounds like a dominant, NFL defensive end.’”
Kazeem Kayode “C.J.” Olaniyan — O-lan-EUN is the correct way to say it — won’t be overlooked this season. His coaches are hoping his name will gain household recognition throughout Nittany Nation as Olaniyan is expected to start in Sean Stanley’s old spot at defensive end.
His mission will be to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and stuff running backs opposite standout end Deion Barnes. It’s a job description that sits well with Olaniyan, despite his quiet, gentile disposition.
But Olaniyan, born in Atlanta, Ga. on June 30, 1991, doesn’t say a lot when he finds himself in the media limelight. He speaks softly, drawing out words slowly with a slightly noticeable southern drawl he never gave up despite moving to Warren, Michigan as a 12-year-old. He allows a grin to creep across his face when asked about his goals.
He’s not going to give those specifics up just yet. Especially not after only having three practices to speak of. Olaniyan does want to improve his run-stopping abilities. He wants to bat more passes down at the line of scrimmage and of course, he wants to add to his one career sack.
He smiles and looks down toward the ground when reminded of his given name and the cool ring it has to it. How’d he get that nickname?
“It’s just been something that my mom decided to call me and it’s stuck,” Olaniyan says. “I’m trying to improve myself so I can help my team.”
He’s already made strides. The 6-foot-3 Olaniyan has slimmed down. Although he hovers around 250 pounds, the same weight he played at last season, Olaniyan has burned fat and replaced it with muscle. He feels the difference on the field and added agility has made him a more dangerous pass rusher from the outside.
Along with cornerback Jordan Lucas, Olaniyan earned the Jim O’Hora Award, given to the most improved defensive player at April’s Blue-White game.
In addition, Olaniyan’s football I.Q. is among the best on the team and as defensive line coach Larry Johnson points out, Olaniyan is not without experience.
Olaniyan played in 10 games last season and started against Temple. Working his way through Johnson’s defensive line rotation, Olaniyan recorded 15 tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. His lone sack came against Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg on fourth down to force a turnover in the fourth quarter.
“He’s really a bright football player,” Johnson said. “He can comprehend and understand defenses and that’s important that a guy can get on the field, can digest and can coach on the field. He probably knows every position on the field, and the front four, what they’re supposed to do. That’s the kind of guy you want on the field.”
It’ll be hard for opposing tackles to break Olaniyan’s will or cause him significant discomfort.
He demonstrated his toughness and willingness to play through pain at a young age. During his senior season playing for Milanov at Warren Mott High School, just 20 minutes north of Detroit, Olaniyan injured his ankle midway through the season and played the rest of the way.
Milanov says he knew Olaniyan was hurting — “He had a really bummed wheel,” Milanov says. But the Marauders made the playoffs anyway with Olaniyan, who garnered scholarship offers from every BCS conference, leading the way.
Penn State will welcome a host of new faces hoping to step up along the defensive line this season. It is a position group that’s been hampered by an injury to end Brad Bars and suffered heavy turnover with Stanley and Jordan Hill moving on. Hill was a stalwart for Penn State and his position is expected to be filled by redshirt freshman Austin Johnson.
O’Brien said Penn State may count on a number of true freshmen in Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickels in addition to the dependable Kyle Baublitz, who is back at defensive tackle after shifting from end, and returning starter DaQuan Jones. Olaniyan will be expected to carry a bigger load than ever before along with Jones and Barnes in helping some of the younger players adapt to the college game.
“I think C.J.’s very important to our development,” Johnson said. “He’s important to Deion, for Deion to be successful and DaQuan, the whole nine yards. C.J.’s a very bright player and he had a great spring and he’s having a really outstanding camp right now. He’s going to be one of our leaders.”
Even if he isn’t the loudest guy on the squad.
Olaniyan insists he’s not a big Twitter guy and doesn’t really put much time or stock into social media. He has yet to tweet in August and fired off just four tweets while the team was assembled for spring ball. He doesn’t have any tattoos, although he’s been contemplating getting inked for some time now.
He realizes, however, he has his best chance yet to ink his name in Penn State football lore. Even if it is tricky to pronounce.
“I would say he’s a very laid back guy, especially considering his talent level,” Milanov said. “There’s not an arrogant bone in his body. He’s a pretty humble person considering he’s a pretty talented athlete.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson