Tennessee freshman Emmanuel Okoye compares to NFL draft picks even as he learns football basics

Knoxville News Sentinel
The Tennessee Volunteers signed a coveted recruit from Africa. Then they taught him the basics of football.
During freshman tight end Emmanuel Okoye’s first week on campus this summer, coaches drew 11 X's and 11 O's on a dry-erase board to symbolize players on a football field.
It was an elementary start. But UT coaches are excited about his potential years from now.
“It was very base level, even down to labeling (the positions) of the guys (on the board),” tight ends coach Alec Abeln said. “ … (But) he’s got a chance to be the most athletic guy to ever play the position.”
That’s quite a contrast of evaluations. And learning the sport after signing with an SEC program isn’t the order college football players typically follow.
But Okoye, an 18-year-old from Nigeria, isn’t a typical football player.
Wowing scouts in socked feet
Last year, Okoye was discovered by former NFL star defensive end Osi Umenyiora in his “The Uprise” program. Umenyiora, who grew up in Nigeria, invited Okoye to the NFL Africa talent identification camp in Ghana.
Okoye had never played football. He had played only basketball, and just a few years at that, yet was already excelling. But he wowed football scouts with his size and raw athleticism, which is comparable to that of premier NFL draft picks.
Okoye is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and has a 7-foot wingspan. He recorded a 45.5-inch vertical leap and an 11-foot, 3-inch broad jump. Both would be NFL scouting combine records for tight ends.
And he did much of that in his socks because he didn’t have cleats.
“For a guy who hadn’t been trained and didn’t have the proper footwear, the ability for him to put up those numbers was fantastic,” Umenyiora said in a video released by the NFL.
After playing three games in the NFL Academy, a developmental program in England, Okoye caught the eye of premier college programs in the United States.
Tennessee freshman Emmanuel Okoye (27) stretches his arms while waiting behind McCallan Castles (34) during a tight ends drill in practice on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.
UT coaches heard about Okoye. They watched video of him playing basketball, working out at the combine and playing mostly special teams in the NFL Academy games. They liked the untapped potential of what they saw, and they weren't alone.
In April, Okoye visited Tennessee, Southern Cal, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt. He chose the Vols, enrolled at UT soon after and started learning the sport he’s now tasked with playing at a high level.
He is among eight NFL Academy players on a college team in the 2023 season. The others play for Vanderbilt, Hawaii, Temple, UTEP, Bryant University and two with Colorado.
For Okoye, it has been quite a roller coaster of a year.
“He’s got a long great football journey ahead of him,” UT coach Josh Heupel said. “Think about where he was 12 months ago and where he’s at today. Man, it’s a drastic difference in the competition that he’s facing. But I’m excited about him.”
Don’t expect him to star in games at Neyland Stadium anytime soon. He likely will take a redshirt this season while learning the basics of playing tight end.
Even that position is a recent development. He got a four-star recruit rating by 247Sports Composite as an edge rusher.
Okoye said he chose his position. But Heupel suggested he was nudged toward tight end because his soft hands and rangy athleticism from basketball would translate well.
In practice, Okoye looks the part. He has a similar size to UT’s other tight ends, and he leaps effortlessly to grab passes. But it’s evident he’s trying to catch up to players who’ve spent their life in the sport.
Okoye catches some passes and drops others. He hesitates before running routes. And after going through a drill, a graduate assistant will give him additional instruction while Abeln focuses on the veteran tight ends like Jacob Warren and UC-Davis transfer McCallan Castles.
“Fall camp is definitely interesting because you’ve got old guys where you want to talk about some really detailed stuff, some really nuanced stuff,” Abeln said. “And then you’ve got other guys who are literally learning the game of football. So a lot of (coaching Okoye) is one-on-one time.”
Okoye is optimistic after a couple of practices.
“The first day was good. But today was better,” he said. “And tomorrow will be better. I just keep getting better every day.”
Nigerian Emmanuel Okoye only recently started playing football. Now he's a freshman tight end in Vols preseason practice.
Okoye is adjusting to American culture, but spending a short time in England helped. Different foods and clothes have caught his attention.
Okoye said he speaks three languages: English, pidgin English and his native Igbo. He is still adapting to the Southern accent, but he said the natural beauty of East Tennessee reminds him of where he grew up in Lagos.
Lagos doesn’t have the Smoky Mountains. It’s barely above sea level. And it doesn’t have the Tennessee River. But it features several creeks and the Lagos Lagoon, by the Atlantic Ocean.
Nevertheless, Okoye liked what he saw when he attended UT’s Orange and White spring game in April, which drew a crowd of 58,473. And he believed the coaches had a unique appreciation for developing him as a football player.
“He is as physically gifted as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Abeln said. “He’s got to continue to make steps every day. But just from a raw athletic standpoint, the ceiling is unlimited.”

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