When Sam Okuayinonu walks to his locker each day after practice, the word Liberia is slotted up top near his name plate.
Maryland’s 6-foot-1, 290-pound graduate defensive end uses that as a reminder of where he comes from and the long, unique football journey that brought him to College Park, Md.
“Transitioning from Liberia to the U.S. was definitely a tough journey, but it’s a big part of who I am,” Okuayinonu said. “Every day I go in the locker room it pushes me a little bit to get better, that constant reminder of where I came from.”
Okuayinonu has developed into an integral part of Maryland’s defensive line after two stops at the junior college level. He accumulated a combined 48 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks from 2019-2020, and now he’s preparing for the final season of his college career.
Okuayinonu lived in Liberia until he was 12 years old. Safety concerns prompted Okuayinonu and his mother, Clara Attia, to move to the U.S. They settled in Lowell, Mass., where they had family who had previously immigrated to the U.S.
Growing up in Liberia, soccer was the sport of choice and Okuayinonu was unfamiliar with American football. That all changed when Okuayinonu’s cousin, Ramsford Kanneh, introduced him to the sport during his junior year of high school.
“I actually quite hated football when I first started playing,” Okuayinonu said. “I tried it out my junior year of high school, but I didn’t really like it. So, I ended up quitting I think three or four games into the season and went back to playing soccer.”
Despite his initial frustrations with football, Okuayinonu elected to give it another shot the next season as a senior at Lowell High School in the fall of 2015. After trying football for the second time, Okuayinonu slowly began to fall in love with the sport as his understanding of the game grew and camaraderie with his teammates increased.
Transitioning from soccer to football, Okuayinonu was slotted on the defensive line early on. He lacked the football acumen to play linebacker, but Okuayinonu was fully capable of putting his hands in the dirt and tackling the ball carrier.
Some of his footwork and technique translated over from soccer, but the increased physicality of football presented a whole new challenge. However, Okuayinonu adapted to that physicality, posting 17 total tackles in five games as a senior, creating some of his first football memories.
“My high school senior night,” Okuayinonu said of his earliest football memory. “I remember it was raining and my mom didn’t know anything about football, but she was there in the stands cheering me on. It was something amazing.”
With a new passion for football, Okuayinonu wanted to pursue the sport at the collegiate level. Lacking significant football experience and wanting to improve his grades, he opted for the junior college route after a year away from the game.
His junior college journey began at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss., in the fall of 2017, but the stop was short-lived due to injury issues. That marked the first time in their lives Okuayinonu and Attia were separated from one another.
However, Okuayinonu’s football journey accelerated during his next stop at Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minn., in the fall of 2018. Okuayinonu flourished, posting 62 total tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks and was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Minnesota College Athletic Conference.
“I would say it really clicked for me when I had the game-winning sack to take us to the playoffs when I was at my JUCO in Minnesota,” Okuayinonu said. “It was crazy, it was in overtime. It was one of those third-down plays. I came off the ball hard. It was a 7-yard sack, so it put them back really far and they weren’t able to complete the pass on fourth down. Being in that moment, telling myself to do it and then actually doing it against good competition — in that moment I realized anything I put my mind to, I can accomplish it.”
While dominating at the junior college level, Okuayinonu began seeing interest from Power Five programs, blossoming into a three-star recruit and the No. 107 JUCO prospect nationally for the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports. He received offers from Maryland, Oregon, Syracuse, South Florida, Memphis and several other schools.
After an official visit, Okuayinonu committed to Maryland on Jan. 26, 2019 as a member of the Terps’ 2019 recruiting class. Since arriving at Maryland, Okuayinonu has developed into a more complete defensive lineman, particularly as a run-stopper.
Now, he’s more adept at recognizing certain blocks and using his quickness to counter them. That high football IQ has helped Okuayinonu ascend to one of the veteran leaders in the defensive line room alongside senior Lawtez Rogers.
“For sure, he’s a smarter player since he first came in,” Rogers said. “Before he came to college, he didn’t have a lot of football experience. He’s a leader on the field for our team. He’s way more physical. He plays smarter and more controlled. He’s more gap- and assignment-sound.”
While Okuayinonu plays with a certain physicality and ferocity on the field, he’s full of fun and energy off of it. In the locker room after practice, Rogers and Okuayinonu can often be found dancing and displaying their bright personalities. The duo has grown particularly close during Okuayinonu’s time in College Park, interacting both on and off the field.
“Me and Sam have good times all the time,” Rogers said. “That’s my guy, he’s a big fun guy to be around.”
The entire defensive line is looking to build on the strong foundation it put together during the abbreviated 2020 season, when the Terps went 2-3. The unit tallied a combined 8.5 sacks, led by 4.0 from Mosiah Nasili-Kite.
The unit enters the 2021 season with a new defensive coordinator in Brian Stewart and features a mix of veteran experience and highly-touted recruits. Okuayinonu, Rogers, Nasili-Kite, Ami Finau and Joseph Boletepeli headline the veteran corps of the group.
The coaching staff placed a strong emphasis on improving the defensive front with the 2021 recruiting class. Local products Taizse Johnson (St. John’s College) and Tommy Akingbesote (Charles Herbert Flowers) bring an infusion of young talent to the unit. Both Johnson and Akingbesote were rated as four-star recruits.
“Great teams have great habits and I’m starting to see that from our team as we continue and prepare to develop for our 2021 season,” third-year head coach Michael Locksley said at Big Ten Media Day. “Now for us to take that next step it’s about going on the field and playing with the right kind of discipline each and every day.”
Okuayinonu is confident in himself and his teammates entering the 2021 season, which represents the next step in his football career. And he’ll always remember his roots and the arduous journey that helped him discover a sport he’d grow to fall in love with.
“I’m just proud of the person that it made me. I had to mature because I was on my own for a large majority of my journey,” Okuayinonu said. “It helped me mature. It helped me learn how to be patient. Just meeting people from different places, I got to learn different cultures and how people interact. It was a fun journey.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Originally published Aug. 18, 2021