Emmanuel Okoye to learn on the job

Marvin Westwestwords

Tennessee has the undivided attention of Southeastern Conference football foes.

They are still trying to decide what is a Josh Heupel and how does he do what he does. They have the added concern of what may be the birth of a minor miracle.

If new Volunteer Emmanuel Okoye, 18, can play in their league with no background and only a few minutes of instruction, the concept of practice will be revolutionized. Wouldn’t it be something if he turns into proof positive that physical talent is more important than comprehensive coaching and years of experience?

Emmanuel Okoye

The very large soccer player and an absolute force under schoolboy basketball backboards in Lagos, Nigeria, has been transformed, as if by magic, into a four-star football prospect for Heupel’s high-speed process.

He is 6-5 and almost 240. He is a natural athlete. He can run and jump to record measurements for a young man his size.

He is smart. He can grasp his current situation, the chance of a lifetime, according to the NFL Academy, from whence he now comes. He can also spell football. We’ll find out later if he can actually play.

How he linked up with Tennessee and how many helpers and handlers were involved is one heck of a story.

Initial discovery of Emmanuel was easy. He was bigger than most of the 21 million in the Lagos region. OK, Hakeem Olajuwon, professional basketball player, is bigger but he doesn’t live there anymore.

Emmanuel discovered football, ironically, through a training facility called Educational BasketballOlutobi Adepitan, one of the founders, convinced the youth to give football a look.

“In January 2022, he surprisingly showed up to work out. We put him through sprints, shuttle runs and a 40-yard dash. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was probably the fastest athlete of the day. What he did in the shuttle was stunning.

“By the way, he did the whole camp without cleats. It was crazy. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds in his socks.”

There was no way to hide Okoye’s athletic prowess. Several friends and neighbors told Osi Umenyiora how Emmanuel played soccer and basketball and had heard about football.

The two-time Super Bowl champion (defensive end, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons) was the right person to tell. Umenyiora operates the “Uprise” program to encourage and assist Nigerian youth toward success.

Osi took a look at Emmanuel and suggested he attend a talent identification camp in Abuja. There he grabbed the attention of a lot of people and was soon invited to NFL Africa’s booster program in Ghana, all expenses paid.

Indeed, the NFL invests a few million now and then in search of more and better prospects.

Emmanuel Okoye was redirected, up the ladder, to England, to the NFL Academy in Loughborough, 115 miles north of London. It is dressed up to use “football, education and character development to create life-changing opportunities for young people, age 16 to 19.”

Most just happen to be elite athletes who might earn college scholarships and eventually get drafted.

Kris Durham, former Georgia wide receiver (Seattle Seahawks, Detroit LionsTennessee Titans) directs football traffic at the academy. He says Okoye played some in three games last fall – against IMG Academy of Bradenton, Florida, Scotland U19’s and Nottingham University.

In his debut, he covered kicks. He ran over a returner and caused and captured a fumble. He did well as an edge rusher in games 2 and 3.

“I have been around the game a long time and seen a lot of talented people up close and personal,” said Durham. “Emmanuel is going to be one that shocks a lot of people … he is going to make a massive impact.”

Durham says of course Emmanuel is raw, but he has the talent and work ethic to become big time.

Supporting evidence? His vertical leap was 45.5 inches. Think about that – almost four feet off the ground. His standing broad-jump was 11 feet, three inches. Both accomplishments would be NFL combine records for defensive ends.

Recent Vol Byron Young’s vertical was 38 inches last month in Indianapolis.

Okoye’s wingspan is supposedly seven feet, two inches. Durham calls him a freak. Emmanuel had to look up that word.

Georgia offered a scholarship.

“I know Georgia, everybody knows Georgia,” said Emmanuel. “I was really happy for them to recognize my potential. It’s a blessing, what else can I say?”

Deion Sanders offered a Colorado scholarship. Prime was surprised when he didn’t get a yes.

Durham and Emmanuel’s sister escorted him on an April recruiting trip to Southern Cal, Texas Tech, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, schools that had expressed an interest that he wanted to see.

Based on limited video, Tennessee coaches thought Okoye might become a tight end. First-year tight ends coach Alec Abeln was assigned as his primary contact. God became a factor. Emmanuel is a devout Christian.

“Coach Abeln is a great man, a great coach. He’s a man of faith like I am, so we have stuff in common. We’re both driven by the same things.”

Emmanuel said the other Tennessee coaches came across as genuine, telling him how things really are, not selling anything, not sugar-coating anything, just answering questions and saying how much he has to learn but that they want him.

“That they are real is one of the things I like most about them.”

The spring game gathering of 58,473 got his attention. Okoye said “Wow!”

Okoye’s sister was another Tennessee advantage. She was once an exchange student at Oak Ridge High School. She spoke glowingly of East Tennesseans.

“I prayed throughout my decision-making for God to direct me to the right place,” said Emmanuel. “He led my heart to Tennessee, so I’m grateful for that.

“I know I’m blessed with physical gifts. I know the SEC is a great conference. At Tennessee I will be given an opportunity to reach my full potential, as an athlete and person.

“This is just the beginning of my journey, and I will continue to work hard every day to grow and learn. Whilst I will always be part of the NFL Academy family, I am excited to join the University of Tennessee and continue to develop.

“I hope I will make my family proud, and that starts with an elite education – which was key to my decision. I will give it everything I have.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].

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