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The I-5 10: Ajani Cornelius' world of opportunity
In the first installment of our series on new faces around football in Oregon, we check in with Oregon's new tackle from Harlem.
The first call from Mike O’Donnell came at 6 a.m.
The next — this one answered — came at 8:28.
O’Donnell is the athletic director and football coach of Stepinac High School, where he’s worked for more than 40 years in White Plains, New York. And earlier this week I reached out to the Westchester County Sports Hall of Famer to see what I could learn about new Oregon offensive tackle Ajani Cornelius. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound junior was one of Oregon’s biggest gets of the offseason, landing Rhode Island’s First-Team All-CAA right tackle out of the portal and away from pursuers from Ohio State and the SEC.
Cornelius was ranked as the 18th-best player from the offseason’s transfer portal and is in contention for a starting position on an offensive line that had as much to do with Oregon’s success last season as the quarterback it protected. The Ducks ranked first in the FBS with five sacks allowed in 13 games, and with Alex Forsyth, T.J. Bass and Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu now gone from the group, Cornelius has plenty of opportunity in front of him.
It’s why The I-5 Corridor’s summer series highlighting the new faces of players and coaches around the state is beginning with the big man from the East Coast.
Yes, the New York thing — it’s why O’Donnell’s initial call came so early, and also the reason for of his own surprise when Cornelius put on an Oregon cap at his December signing ceremony in Harlem.
“It’s just so far away from New York, you know?” O’Donnell said. “He really hit it off with the coaches and had a really good visit and maybe that’s why he chose that. His mom and his dad are a big part of his life and they’re going to be traveling to all the games. That was the other reason why I thought it was just unusual because it’s that far away.
“But I guess when you get on a plane it doesn’t really matter.”
Plus, Cornelius even having the opportunity to go to Oregon was pretty unexpected in the big picture.
Next week on the I-5 10: A.C. Patterson’s return to Portland State has momentum shifting the Vikings’ way.
Cornelius was a monster in high school, spearheading back-to-back New York state championships in 2018 and 2019. But he was a bit of a late-developer and O’Donnell is the first to admit that college coaches aren’t often making the hour-long trek out of the city north to White Plains. It’s a lot easier for him to name those who’ve made it on to the highest levels of football than those who’ve been overlooked.
For a bit that appeared to be Cornelius’ fate. He garnered few offers in high school and none at the FBS level, eventually committing to Rhode Island as a player viewed widely as a big body still figuring out how to use his frame.
He played one game as a true freshman in the Covid-shorted 2020 season. Then he started every game at right tackle in 2021. Everything came together in 2022.
“Rhode Island did a great job with him,” O’Donnell said. “Ajani grew into his body. He got bigger, stronger. If you look at pictures from his senior year, he was a big kid, but now he’s just got the perfect offensive lineman body.”
Cornelius’ stock went bonkers in Week 4 when he didn’t surrender a pressure against a Pittsburgh defensive line stacked with future NFL Draft picks. That’s when things started to get different for O’Donnell.
“I was getting phone calls from people I hadn’t heard from in a long, long time,” O’Donnell said. “They wanted to see how he grew up — people from Nebraska and South Carolina and all over the country.
“They’re not normal phone calls for us.”
Cornelius entered the portal after Rhode Island’s season ended in November sans an FCS Playoff berth. His college coach wasn’t thrilled, but he also got it.
“He wanted to prove himself that he can be a dude at that level,” RI offensive line coach Stefon Wheeler told The Athletic in December. “He’s taking a chance on himself and I understand that.”
So why Oregon? Cornelius said he had a “gut” feeling after meeting with Oregon’s staff and hitting it off with UO lineman Marcus Harper II, who hosted his visit to Eugene. He committed in December, arrived in January and quickly found the battles he was looking for in spring practice against South Carolina defensive end transfer Jordan Burch.
“He’s a strong dude,” Cornelius said. “He’s not your typical end out there. He’s heavy and he’s quick. He’s a true athlete for his size.”
But it’s not just Burch who’s making an impression.
"Ajani is bringing a ton of veteran leadership because he just does things the right way at all times,” O-Line coach A’Lique Terry said. “If you watch Ajani, Ajani is going to be in the meeting room early, get extra work and ask extra questions for our young guys. It's a great person to be looking up to because he's going to come to work every day. You can see it every single day, 65 gets better and better.”
Cornelius said there’s a simple reason for that: while he’s new to Eugene, he’ll never forget that his timezone is three hours ahead.
“I’m from Harlem, New York and grew up playing football with a lot of guys. We all had the same dreams but along the way they didn’t get to see them through,” he said. “I think about them almost every day when I come out here. Being able to play at this level just makes me want to keep going for them.
“I’m really proud to represent New York.”
— Tyson Alger
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