Along with Mike D'Andrea, he was supposed to be one of the gems of the 2002 Ohio State recruiting class. Now in 2005, Mike Kudla is showing everyone why.
The old adage "better late than never" could not be more appropriate for the 6-3 senior defensive end from Medina Highland. Kudla is spearheading a defensive line for Ohio State that has allowed the talented linebacker core to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
This season, Kudla has 32 tackles after the 40-2 win against Illinois. He has added 6.5 sacks, which ties him for No. 2 on the team in sacks along with A.J. Hawk, for the Big Ten's team leader in sacks with 36.
The 2002 recruiting haul produced both Hawk and Bobby Carpenter, along with the oft-injured D'Andrea, who like Kudla, has struggled to remain healthy his entire career. However, while Hawk and Carpenter have earned most of the ink in the press for the Ohio State defense, Kudla is finally making the name for himself everyone expected when he signed with the Buckeyes in February of 2002.
"This is the kind of season you always hope to have," Kudla said. "This is your senior season, your farewell season, and I've worked really hard to put myself in this position. I've been blessed, I've been hurt, but I'm glad to be here."
Kudla's terrific season reached another level on Saturday against the Illini. Nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss was perhaps his biggest performance to date.
On a close-knit defense where everyone takes pride in collective effort even more than individual achievements, Hawk was happy to see his teammate find some success on a personal level.
"It's huge to see Mike playing well," he said of his teammate. "We're so happy for him. We knew he was capable of doing it all along, it's just he's been plagued with injuries since he's been here."
It hasn't exactly been an easy journey for Kudla.
After lettering as a true freshman in 2002, collecting 12 tackles in mop-up duty, Kudla was hospitalized shortly after the season for a viral infection in his stomach.
The illness caused him to lose nearly 40 pounds, and it was weeks and even months before Kudla could remotely begin working out – let alone put back 40 pounds from a depleted body. But he kept plugging away.
In 2003, Kudla spent the season as the talented backup for Will Smith. He saw a little more action than his freshman season, but constant bumps and bruises limited his time. Not to mention a lot of close games kept Smith on the field quite a bit.
When Smith departed as a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2004, Kudla's time had come.
He was all set to start at end as a junior last year, but a pinched nerve set him back – yet again. It meant he played only sparingly in the first half of the season before finally winning a starting position for the last six games of the year.
The pinched nerve later led to shoulder surgery in the off-season – yet another tally on the list of setbacks.
Towards the end of last season, Kudla came on strong. He has picked up where he left off in 2004 by exerting the talent that once hyped his arrival to Ohio State.
"I've really pushed for this season," he said.
He hasn't been alone.
The entire defensive line has been solid, if not spectacular for Ohio State this season. Quinn Pitcock, Marcus Green and David Patterson, along with Kudla, have all made big impacts this year.
"We're a real close group. More this year more than any other I've been here," Kudla said of the line. "We're really close. We spend a lot of time together, have a lot of fun and work hard together."
With Kudla's emergence, and NFL career should be quick to follow when he graduates after the season.
Hawk is not surprised by his success.
"Oh man, he's just so big, so strong and so fast," he concluded, "and he cares so much about the game. It's so great to see him play."
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