Tennessee Titans: Rookie D-Lineman’s Time Has Come

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NASHVILLE — The first call he made was to his mother.

It should have been.

She was the one who moved Sam Okuayinonu from Liberia to the United States in 2011, a mother and son hoping to improve their lives through education when they settled in Boston.

Clara Okuayinonu was also the one who funded the early stages of Sam Okuayinonu’s long and unusual college football journey, which included a year at Coahoma Community College (Miss.) and two at Mesabi Range Community College (Minn.) before he arrived. at the University of Maryland in 2019.

So when the 24-year-old defensive lineman learned last week that he had been promoted from the Tennessee Titans practice squad to the team’s 53-man roster, he knew who needed to be the first to know.

“She just started crying – she was crying because she was so excited,” Okuayinonu said. “She has been with me throughout this journey, my footballing journey. … She was always there to support me, so she knew what it meant to me and what it meant to us. Better times, dude.

Whether or not Okuayinonu plays Sunday in Washington — and how much the 6-1, 269-pound defensive lineman will eventually contribute to the Titans — remains to be seen.

But the man known to teammates and coaches as “Sam O.” is intriguing, partly because there is the possibility of untapped potential from the strong and athletic perspective.

A football player who grew up in Monrovia, Liberia, Okuayinonu didn’t even start playing football until his senior year at Lowell High in Massachusetts.

“Before, I was all football, but my cousin – my senior year (in high school), he was like, ‘You’re a little big, you should try (football). Why don’t you try, man ?” Okuayinonu said. “So I just tried. I didn’t really like it at first, but the more I played the game, the more I liked the game.”

Okuayinonu’s late start meant he had to attract the attention of leading college scouts via the junior college route, which led to his combined three years in Mississippi and Minnesota before securing a scholarship to Maryland.

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He was passed over in the draft last April, probably because he was considered a ‘tweener’ – not necessarily long and skinny enough for the edge, not necessarily big and strong enough for the inside defensive line.

But the Titans coaches were impressed by Okuayinonu’s skill and high drive, attributes that helped him post 55 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in his final season at Maryland when he earned All-Big 10 honors of the third team.

“He just shows up – you turn on the movie, watch the (reconnaissance) team, watch the special teams, you notice him,” Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “He’s going hard. He tries to play with technique and fundamentals. A guy practices like that and it’s usually correlated. … I think he’s earned an opportunity to come out and play, and I’m glad to see where he is.

Added Titans tight end Chig Okonkwo, Okuayinonu’s teammate at Maryland: “Man, he’s just a relentless player. Play with a lot of power. At the speed of the edge. But for me it’s his tenacity and how relentless he is when he plays. That’s what I admire the most about him. »

If active on Sunday, Okuayinonu will likely see most of his action on the rim, where the Titans are suffering due to injuries to Harold Landry, Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi. He has the versatility, however, to move to different places on the defensive line.

Okuayinonu said when he learned earlier this week that general manager Jon Robinson wanted to talk to him, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

But when Robinson complimented Okuayinonu’s work ethic and improved skills – then told him he’d earned a promotion to the Titans’ 53-man roster – Okuayinonu couldn’t contain his emotion.

“It was crazy, a great moment,” Okuayinonu said. “I gave him a hug. In fact, I gave him a hug, a big hug. I was so happy.”

As soon as he left Robinson’s office, Okuayinonu telephoned his mother.

“It was great news,” Okuayinonu said. “A very good moment for me and my family. »

Next, Okuayinonu retweeted a one-word social media post – “Deakonti” – which has a special meaning in his native language.

“It means everything has time – there is a time for everything,” Okuayinonu said. “Just bide your time, bide your moment, do whatever you can to make it happen – and then, when the time comes, make the best of the situation, take advantage of the opportunities.”

A grown-up can wait until Sunday.

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