Even though former Maryland defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu hasn’t played football for long, he has a chance to join an NFL team in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound defensive lineman was born in Liberia and grew up playing soccer. It was not until he moved to Massachusetts that he gave football a shot — he was encouraged to play given his large stature — but his first serious season of football didn’t come until his senior year of high school.
Despite that senior year being a short time ago, Okuayinonu is confident his name will be called during the draft.
“I’m very confident I’m going to hear my name called,” Okuayinonu said on Glenn Clark Radio April 25. “I played all the cards on the table. I did everything I could do, and the cards are out of my hands now and just waiting to see what happens on that day. I’m pretty confident I’m going to hear my name called.”
Okuayinonu attended two junior colleges before having the opportunity to play in the Big Ten at Maryland from 2019-2021. He attended Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss., in 2017 and Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minn., in 2018. He caught the attention of Maryland when he recorded 62 total tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks and one forced fumble and was named the Minnesota College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2018.
That is when he knew he had a chance to make it to the NFL.
“When I got to my second JUCO in Minnesota and I was first-team All-American for junior college and led the nation in sacks with 17.5, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can play this game for the rest of my life,'” Okuayinonu said.
Okuayinonu decided to play for Maryland after his two stops at the JUCO level. His performances were a big part of why the team’s 2021 season was a success, perhaps marking a turning point for the Maryland football program. He played in all 13 games, recording 55 tackles and leading the team in sacks (6.0) and tackles for loss (8.5). He earned third-team All-Big Ten honors.
The Terrapins qualified for a bowl game for the first time since 2016, and Okuayinonu helped Maryland win a bowl game for the first time since 2010 with a dominating 54-10 victory against Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
He is proud of being a part of that team and culture change under head coach Michael Locksley.
“I feel like that’s one of my biggest accomplishments being at Maryland, just being a part of a culture change,” Okuayinonu said. “When I first came here, I feel like guys weren’t as motivated as they needed to be. Guys weren’t really excited about practice. But now, this last season, you see guys amped up before practice, very excited, trying to get better. Being a part of that and winning a bowl game, that was a big thing. It was great being a part of that culture change. It’s definitely one of my proudest things about Maryland.”
Though Okuayinonu has only been a full-time football player since his senior season of high school, he is becoming more and more confident as a player.
“Football is all about knowledge,” Okuayinonu said. “The more you know, the better you can make your reads. The game slows down with knowledge and the more I play this game, everything is going to slow down. I’m going to be a great player in the league — my work ethic, my passion for the game, how I love to watch film, I just know I have a pretty high ceiling, so I’m going to try to reach that.”
According to NFL Mock Draft Database, Okuayinonu projects to go undrafted. But since the Ravens have 10 total draft picks, they could take a shot on a talented, motivated defensive lineman. He knows how good the Ravens’ defense has been historically and would love to make his mark in Baltimore.
“Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, he’s a dog. I love Michael Pierce, too,” Okuayinonu said when asked what comes to mind when he thinks about the Ravens’ defense. “I know about the Baltimore defense. It’s historical, legendary — physical guys, tough guys, gritty guys, hand workers, run to the ball, run to every play. That’s how I see myself, so I could see myself as a great fit in Baltimore.”
For more from Okuayinonu, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox