NFL prospect Chris Odom uses work ethic to turn wait into opportunity

Chris Odom is a downhill pass-rusher whose football career to this point has been all uphill. Now he’s in the middle of the steepest climb yet: trying to crack a professional roster as the NFL Draft approaches in April.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Odom played on the same defensive line at Arlington Martin that featured Myles Garrett, one of the front-runners for the first overall pick in this year’s NFL draft class, and Devonte Fields, another highly recruited player considered by many to be an early-round draft prospect despite being separated from TCU following a 2013 assault charge that was ultimately dropped.

Odom was a one-year starter at Martin, but his pedigree, size and speed still netted him a football scholarship to Arkansas State after he graduated in 2013. His older brother was a cornerback at Baylor and a graduate assistant at Missouri in 2016, while his father (both named Cliff) spent most of his 13-year NFL career with the Baltimore and then Indianapolis Colts.

When he stepped onto the Arkansas State campus in Jonesboro, though, Odom had to prove himself all over again. It all came to fruition in an 8-5 senior season that saw Odom post 12.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles in 13 games as a full-time starter, including a 31-13 win over Central Florida in the Cure Bowl on Dec. 17.

He also blocked five kicks in his four years at Arkansas State.

The Little Rock Touchdown Club named Odom its 2016 Dan Hampton Award winner. The award is given to the top collegiate defensive lineman in the state of Arkansas.

“What a testament to work ethic,” Odom’s high school coach Bob Wager said. “The guys that have to stick with it like that and find a way to overcome adversity are the guys that you’re so unbelievably proud of as a coach.”

Just like at Martin, though, Odom had to wait his turn at Arkansas State. Three years in the Red Wolves’ defensive line rotation paved the way for a breakout as a senior, and it all started coming together for Odom during a comeback attempt at Utah State that came up just short in September.

He had two sacks and nine tackles in the 30-24 loss, in what became a turning point for both Odom and the Red Wolves’ season. After starting the season 0-3, that Utah State loss was part of an 8-2 turnaround that saw Odom solidify himself as one of the team’s defensive leaders, perhaps even one with an NFL future ahead of him.

He was twice named Sun Belt Conference defensive player of the week and later named to the All-Sun Belt Conference first team.

“I’ve always worked for what I’ve earned,” said Odom, who attended the College Gridiron Showcase and Symposium last month in Bedford. “I have to work harder to get the looks that guys at Power Five schools get, and I understand that. Those are just facts. It’s not a bad thing, because along the way that has pushed me to improve to the point where I have a shot.”

Now he’s in the middle of a critical period in his development as an NFL prospect, trying to add the skills to his set that a 6-foot-4 pass rusher who weighs in at just 257 pounds needs to have in his back pocket to get NFL scouts’ attention. Odom has primarily been a down rusher throughout high school and college, but might not be big enough to play full-time defensive end at the NFL level.

To make himself more marketable, Odom is getting reps in rushing from a standing position and dropping back into coverage, two things he admits haven’t been much of a focus for him to this point.

“I would like to believe I’m a true defensive end,” Odom said. “Rushing the passer with my hand down is what I’m good at right now. That doesn’t mean I won’t learn to drop back. I’ll learn and I’ll play wherever they give me a chance to play.”

Getting drafted in April is likely a long shot for Odom, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help a team. DeMarcus Ware, another defensive end from a Sun Belt Conference school (Troy), also plays at 6-4 and 258 pounds and never had a college season with more than 11 sacks.

“Look at DeMarcus Ware. Ryan Carrethers (Arkansas State), drafted in the fifth round in 2014 (by the San Diego Chargers). Great players come from anywhere,” Odom said. “Canadian League, overseas, Germany — they’ll find you if you can play.”

Odom is used to having to prove that he can play. Over the next few weeks, he’ll do it again in the biggest trial of his young career.

“Nothing is going to be given to you, and I’m that player,” Odom said. “Nothing has ever been given to me on the field, and I was never expecting it to be.”

That sentiment is one familiar to all the pro prospects who have started playing football in Wager’s program.

“He’s had to work to play at every level,” Wager said of Odom. “It’s remarkable, but it also makes him relatable to guys when he comes back and visits Martin. There’s a program full of players who don’t see him as Chris Odom the NFL prospect, but Chris Odom a member of the Martin Warrior family.”

Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram