DAVID OJABO spent the dark Scottish nights of his early teens honing his talent. Each evening, he would take out a ball and go through his painstaking routine in the gym with his brother Victor Jr. Initially he practised jumping with a tennis ball, then it was a volleyball, before finally he lifted up a basketball and dunked it for the first time. Ojabo harboured dreams of one day playing in the NBA, and demonstrated significant enough promise to play for Scotland at underage level.

If that shows the value of perseverance and time-served application to one's task it is clear that Ojabo is now a man in a hurry in another sport entirely. He's been busy with exams and preparation for his next big American Football game but Herald Sport has managed, nevertheless, to snaffle 20 minutes with him on a Zoom call.

He has crammed his 6ft 4ins frame into a swivel chair in an office at the sports facility in the University of Michigan, behind him a whiteboard filled with to-do lists is clearly visible. It is a fitting metaphor for a young man whose own to-do list will soon need a couple of extra sheets.

Then again, Ojabo's life has rarely been dull. Born in May 2000 to Victor and Ngor Ojabo, he spent his early years in Nigeria before his father took a job in Aberdeen in the oil and gas industry and moved the family to Scotland's north east. Educated at the city's International School, he showed promise at basketball and represented his adopted country at Under-13 and Under-14 level. At 15, he left his parents and brother behind and made his way to the States where he was offered a scholarship by Blair Academy in New Jersey.

It didn't quite work out on the court, however, and when he showed outstanding promise as a sprinter, the American Football coaches at Blair took note and encouraged him to try out for the team. He was laughed at by team-mates for not knowing the markings on the field during one of his earliest training sessions. That was only five years ago and while it is tempting to suggest he has been an overnight sensation, Ojabo, now 21, baulks somewhat as he recalls his meticulous efforts to make it as an elite sportsman.

“I didn't even know what the NFL was,” he says. “I was so focused on making it in the NBA or soccer or whatever, anything. But that didn't work out. I didn't even know the sport that I was playing prior to coming to this country. I didn't know all the rules, I didn't know where the hash marks were, I would be asking people and people would be laughing at me. That's it. It's all fun and games, fun and jokes but in due time, you know?”

The 'due time' he refers to is his journey to the present. He has been on a steep learning curve ever since pulling on a helmet for the first time in 2016 and one of his biggest obstacles was overcoming initial reservations about taking hits to the head.

“It's one of those you have got to figure out [for yourself],” he reflects. “You have either got it or you don't. There's no in between, either you are going to hit somebody or you're not. You know for a fact that the person on the other side is going to hit you . . . hard – and want to finish you. I just made my mind up 'there's no going back, go on, let go'.”

Having quickly overcome those concerns he is now one of the hottest prospects in college football and slotted to be a first round pick in April's NFL draft. Ojabo had known since his first year at Blair that he had the tools necessary to succeed in the sport, not least because he had watched a good friend of similar build and with the same physical traits prosper.

“I had seen my ex-team-mate Odafe Oweh (now of the Baltimore Ravens) do the same thing – played one year of football as a specific type of athlete and then blow up,” he says. “I kind of knew that I was going to blow up. My first visit to a college was to a Division 1 college, my second visit was to a Division 1 college, my third etc. As soon as I knew that colleges were interested it was almost like a no-brainer.”

In the end he opted for Michigan where his progress has been rapid. Prior to this season, Ojabo had only played 20 snaps but he spent training sessions working alongside and studying two other linemen coveted by NFL teams – Josh Uche (New England Patriots) and Kwity Paye (Indianapolis Colts) – and he has seized his opportunity this time around during a breakthrough season in which he has emerged as a wrecking ball of a defensive end for the Michigan Wolverines. It has helped, too, that he has trained daily against the best offensive line in the college game. He has 11 sacks to his name, 13 tackles for a loss and was a standout performer as the Wolverines won the Big 10 – the oldest and, arguably, most prestigious college conference in the United States. In the early hours of this morning, with his elder brother Victor Jr – who had flown from Aberdeen – looking on, Ojabo featured as the No.2 ranked team in college football played out the NCAA semi-finals against Georgia Bulldogs in Miami's Orange Bowl with a place against Alabama or Cincinnati in the national championship at stake.

The next step is surely the NFL. Ojabo is eligible for another season of college football but he ranks behind only his Wolverines team-mate Aidan Hutchinson for sacks in the Big 10 and NFL teams are waiting to pounce. Hutchinson is tipped to be the next defensive superstar in the NFL with a multi-million dollar salary on offer should he go in the top five of the draft but Ojabo is equally coveted. His physical gifts – 6ft 4ins frame, elusiveness and lightning burst off the line of scrimmage – are the kind of attributes scouts drool over and should he impress at the NFL Combine (the annual showcase where prospects get to demonstrate their skills) he could rocket up draft boards into the top 10.

He becomes animated when talk turns to the draft. Speaking this week to American media ahead of the Georgia game, Ojabo was circumspect about his prospects but when asked by Herald Sport where he hoped to sign, he was more forthcoming: “Somewhere hot. I've done the full circle thing. From Nigeria hot to Scotland, to New Jersey, [to Michigan]. It's kind of cold, cold, in between, so now I'm looking for somewhere hot. It's a blessing but it's a lot to think about. Quite frankly, three months ago, I wasn't even known on NFL boards, come now, you reach the post-season and they are talking about a potential top-10 pick, first rounder, it's just crazy.”

There have been Scots – such as the kickers Graham Gano and Lawrence Tynes and the punter Jamie Gillan – who have made a career in the NFL but they have played in specialist positions that value traditionally European attributes. Defensive end, where you're pitted against 6ft-plus snarling behemoths who want to rip your head off, requires another skillset altogether. Gentrified Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, is a beautiful place to live but it's also 3500 miles from his parental home in Aberdeen.

How does he view the whole experience and what would his advice be to other kids who might have similar potential?

“It's crazy, [but] it's doable. It's daunting. It may seem [like] 'it's America, it's their sport,' or just America as a whole is daunting but it's doable. Five years ago I wasn't even playing the sport, didn't even know about the sport. Five years on, I might be a top-round pick so don't cloud your head with anything. If you really want to do it, if you really have a passion for the sport or a passion to make it, just do it. A lot of people here don't even know where Scotland is. If I put a world map down, they can't point out where Scotland is, so don't worry about it. It doesn't matter where you are from, it doesn't matter if people don't know where you are from, it is doable. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“I didn't just fall out of the sky. I've been grinding since [my days in] Scotland. I would take trains all the way down to Glasgow, Edinburgh just on my own as a 12-year-old, 13-year-old just to make the national basketball squad training, every weekend. That's one thing I want these guys to know. I didn't just wake up one day and all of a sudden I'm an athletic freak and I could jump. I taught myself how to [slam] dunk. I was in the gym doing those jumping reps, really teaching myself. It didn't just come and then people are like 'wow'. There were literally nights and nights. If you really want it, you get it.”

There is the potential to mistake what Ojabo says as frustration but he quickly counters that suggestion.

“It's more like a satisfaction actually. I kind of chuckle when people say 'he came out of nowhere', you don't just come out of nowhere.”