Offensive Choice—OT Chukwuma Okorafor

Photo: Western Michigan Athletics

It’s getting on for the end of the third round in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Steelers have chosen a wide receiver in the second round, which wasn’t very surprising given they had just traded Martavis Bryant away, and then moved up in the third round to nab Mason Rudolph, a choice which will make this draft either live in infamy among Steelers Nation or go down as one of the smartest moves of a generally canny front office.

And while it took one of the Steelers’ few remaining picks (No. 220) to get Rudolph, at least they still had their usual third-rounder. So who would they use it on? One of the remaining ILBs? A pass rusher?

Nope. It was back to the offense—the very unit that was putatively the strength of the team already. They took an offensive tackle.

Before we look specifically at Okorafor (and there’s a lot of him to look at!) I want to note his antecedents—namely, he spent his college career at Western Michigan. Perhaps it is recency bias, but it seems to me as if the Steelers do pretty darn well when they pick players from small (or even large) Michigan schools.

Since I shouldn’t really throw that out without backing it up, here is a list of Steelers draft picks during Mike Tomlin’s tenure which were from Michigan schools:

  • 2017: OLB Keion Adams (Western Michigan) No. 248
  • 2015: DE L.T. Walton (Central Michigan) No. 199
  • 2013: RB Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) No. 48
  • 2010: WR Antonio Brown (Central Michigan) No. 195
  • 2007: OLB LaMarr Woodley (Michigan) No. 46

Obviously there is no question about the 2010 and 2013 picks. The Steelers hit a home run in both instances. LaMarr Woodley might be more contentious because it’s easier to remember the oft-injured and under-performing player after he got his second contract, but he was an important component of Lombardi No. 6. I don’t see how he can be considered anything but a great success, however underwhelmingly his Steelers career ended.

The 2015 pick of L.T. Walton isn’t as sexy, but to get a “very important depth piece” (to quote a 2017 Behind the Steel Curtain article) out of a late sixth-round pick has to be viewed as a win, whether Walton figures in the Steelers’ long-range plans or not.

And as for Keion Adams, who knows? One thing we do know—the Steelers thought enough of him to IR him instead of cutting him with an injury settlement after he injured his shoulder in the Friday Night Lights training camp scrimmages last year. I’m really happy to report he put the time to good use, not only rehabbing but, according to this Salisbury Post article, finishing up the classes he needed to get his Criminal Justice degree. He graduates tomorrow.

So far, at least, this is not a single failed pick out of a Michigan school, of whatever size the school, and however late in the draft they were chosen. I rest my case!

So on to Mr. Okorafor. The first thing to note is that while it may have seemed like a bit of a luxury pick at the time, it appears to have been prescient after all, given the injury to Jerald Hawkins, who was supposed to have taken over Chris Hubbard’s Swiss army knife role on the offense.

And honestly, between injury and ineffectiveness Hawkins has been a disappointment so far. This isn’t to say he won’t be a late bloomer, but his time for blooming is perilously close to being up.

The early reports on Okorafor are very good (although the same could be said for Hawkins, which goes to show the value of early reports.) But as usual I’m going to focus on him in the areas outside of football. After all, we will all have a chance to see him on the field in a few short weeks!

Maybe everyone else in the world already knows this, but I was surprised to find that Okorafor was born in Nigeria, grew up in Botswana, and only immigrated with his family to the US in 2010. He’s young as well—he doesn’t turn 21 until sometime during training camp. He never played (American) football—although he played a lot of soccer in Africa—until high school.

In an article in the Detroit Free Press prior to the draft, Okorafor noted that the first American football game he ever saw was the 2010 Steelers/Packers Super Bowl, and while he wasn’t really sure what was going on, he thought it looked fun. He tried out for his high school team as a punter/kicker—not surprising considering his background. It wasn’t until the next year that he was put on the offensive line, and then he played the interior.

He became a starter during his junior year, at right tackle. As he told the Detroit Free Press, he loves the power aspect of football:

I’d probably say being able to move a man from Point A to Point B, that’s probably one of the best feelings ever.

Despite his lack of experience, the raw talent and prototypical size attracted more than just the local folks. (Okorafor attended high school in the Detroit area.) He committed to Western Michigan in the spring before his senior year, and although a number of big schools (Ohio State, Florida, Oklahoma and others) made offers to him after a stellar senior season, he decided to stick with Western Michigan. As his coach at WMU said, “it speaks to his character that he made a commitment and followed through on it.”

As Okorafor told the Battle Creek Enquirer:

I didn’t want to betray and go somewhere else. It was all about trust. Most schools came to me late, so I felt like I was a second option to them.”

For an offensive tackle it may have been a very wise thing to do anyhow. His coach, WMU assistant coach Bill Kenney, has been turning out league-worthy offensive tackles for a long time. He spent over 20 years at Penn State as the offensive line coach before moving to Western Michigan, and during that time developed 30 linemen who played (or are playing) in the NFL. So it’s good to hear that he considers Okorafor among his top pupils.

But there was more to it than that—Okorafor wanted to stay close to his family. As a post-draft article by Hombre de Acero noted, “Steelers (Again) Prioritize Character with Terrell Edmunds & Other 2018 Draft Picks” noted, “his worst college attribute seemed to be that he was ‘too nice.'”

In a brief article on 247sports.com, written while Okorafor was still in high school, he was described as an “outstanding student” who got mostly As and a few Bs. His high school coach noted he was

…”really coachable because he’s a real smart kid…That’s his best asset, you show him something technique wise or give him a scenario and he just figures it out and does it.”

The article also noted:

…the idea/opportunity to go to college for free in the United States was shocking.

“That was a surprise,” Okorafor said. “My parents were confused. They didn’t know what was happening.”

Since his family moved to America to provide better opportunities for the children, this must have been a very nice surprise indeed. And there is no doubt he is grateful.

In an interview  with draftwire.usatoday.com, Okorafor said this:

Q: What’s one thing you want people to know about Chukwuma Okorafor, the person?

CO: Family means everything to me. I pray before every game. I pray for myself, my teammates and my family back home. Everything I do is all about making our family name proud. I would never do anything to bring shame to myself or my family.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, Mr. Okorafor, and we look forward to seeing you on the field very soon!

I apologize for the tremendously long hiatus between posts. I am still in France (although just about to return to the US) and have been in Internet Hell. I haven’t had reliable internet when I had enough time to write on a regular basis for several weeks. This made it pretty difficult—not just to post, but to do the research.

I will be pretty slammed with six months worth of stuff to catch up on when I get back, but I will at least have the necessary bandwidth when I do squeeze out some time. And of course when training camp begins we will really ramp up the coverage. At least assuming Latrobe isn’t underwater by then…

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