New York Giants legend Osi Umenyiora, who runs his Uprise football development programme across Africa, told ESPN that he’s looking to recruit athletes in their teens, in order to have them ready for the NFL at a younger age.
Speaking at the recent NFL Africa camp in Kenya, the second such camp on the continent, Umenyiora said that finding older players, many of whom have made it to the International Player Pathway programme [IPP], was a success, but that younger talents would benefit more from joining the NFL Academy.
At last year’s camp in Ghana, Umenyiora assessed players in their late teens and early 20s, but said of this year’s event in Nairobi: “This year, we focused more on the younger players. Most of the guys here are 19, 18, 17 years old.
“That’s the key, because last year was more of a mix; mostly the older ones that were going to the IPP. This year has been more focused on the ones who were going to go to the academy.
“We’re just going to go younger, younger and younger, which is why we’re focusing on the younger ages right now – because we’re realising that even if you find them at 21, 22 years old, they’re still taking a couple years to develop, and we’re talking about the highest levels.”
The Nigerian used the example of Philadelphia Eagles‘ Australian star Jordan Mailata, a former rugby player who was developed through the IPP. Mailata was discovered in 2018, at the age of 20, but only made his NFL debut in the 2020 season.
Umenyiora said: “We’ve got Jordan Mailata, who is obviously a left tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles – one of the best players in football – but it took him years before he even got on the field and he came from a rugby background, a professional sports background.
“Think about it from the [perspective of] guys who aren’t professional. We know that it’s going to take them a couple of years to actually develop, so why not get that earlier? Why not start that at its inception at 16, 17 years old? That is, for me, the sweet spot for developing high level football players – getting them around 17 or 18.
“That’s what we’re looking to do now – getting them into the academy and getting them into colleges and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
Umenyiora said that some of last year’s IPP prospects would soon be allocated to NFL teams, though he declined to reveal details. Meanwhile, NFL Academy prospects recruited at last year’s camp have picked up college offers.
Most notably, Emmanuel Okoye has received scholarship offers from the USC Trojans, California Golden Bears, Hawaii, Nebraska, Georgia, Duke, Tennessee, WKU, Ole Miss, Tulane, Colorado, Minnesota, Boston College, Grambling State, UAB, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt and UTSA.
Clinton Azubuike, meanwhile, has also received a scholarship offer from Hawaii – one which Umenyiora said would not be his last. Other players who came through the initial NFL Africa camp have received college offers too.
Umenyiora already considers the NFL’s work on the continent a mission accomplished, saying: “In my estimation, [NFL Africa] has been a massive success already.
“If you really think about what it is that we’re doing here; if you think about the ability to have kids that weren’t playing the game and then all of a sudden, they’re getting opportunities that people in other countries would die for, I think understanding their mentality, seeing their parents, seeing the emotion that runs through these kids – every single one that we give these opportunities to me is a success story.
“If you’re looking five years down the road, I think [the goal] would be having more Emmanuels and Clintons and having more players in the IPP. If you’re looking 20 years down the road, you’re looking at a league, obviously, in Africa. You’re looking at games being played in Africa. You’re looking at the game of football being common all across Africa.
“If I’m thinking of success in 20 years, I think – I’m almost 100% certain – all those things are going to happen.”