After 18 offers from top schools — four of which led to visits — Nigerian defensive end Emmanuel Okoye (18), one of the NFL Academy‘s most exciting prospects, committed to the University of Tennessee because it ‘had a feeling of home’.
Okoye, who only started playing American football in 2021 after being spotted on a basketball court in Lagos, Nigeria, visited Texas Tech, USC and Vanderbilt as well as Tennessee, and had offers most notably from back-to-back defending champions Georgia Bulldogs.
However, it was at Tennessee where the three-star edge felt most at home. Okoye told ESPN: “All the schools I visited were great schools, but Tennessee stood out – the environment; how I was able to be myself around the coaches and players.
“Academics [and] everything was great. I just had that feeling of home and it was a great one.”
Two years ago, this would not have seemed possible, as Okoye was dead-set on a career in basketball at the time. Brothers Olutobi and Iseolupo Adepitan, the founders of top Nigerian program Educational Basketball, which later morphed into Flourish Sports Group, oversaw his conversion to American football.
READ: Meet Iseolupo Adepitan, who scours Nigeria for NFL and NBA talent
“In the summer of 2021… I saw him on social media. I saw a video of him dunking, so I reached out to him and asked him to come out, but it wasn’t possible for him at the time,” Olutobi Adepitan told ESPN.
“Based on what I saw from the video, I didn’t really expect to see that he was that fast, that quick, that agile, that fluid, that strong. When he walked in, though, he had a great physique. He was tall and you could see that he was well-built, but it’s another thing to see it all unfold in person.”
Umenyiora: Okoye’s ‘African spirit’ will help at Vols
New Tennessee Volunteers commit Emmanuel Okoye only started playing football in 2021, but mentor Osi Umenyiora says the 18-year-old will be just fine thanks to his Nigerian upbringing.
Okoye took some convincing and so did his parents, who were concerned about the physicality of football. However, he ultimately decided to attend New York Giants legend Osi Umenyiora’s Uprise camp and the similar NFL Africa Touchdown event in Ghana, which took place in June last year.
Afterwards, Okoye joined the NFL Academy in London and immediately stood out. He is not the only homegrown NFL Africa product to have received attention from top schools – Clinton Azubuike has received an offer from Hawaii – but Okoye has been by far the most heavily recruited.
Speaking before Okoye committed to Tennessee, Umenyiora singled him and Azubuike out as two players who had given him a blueprint of the type of talent he was looking for in Africa for the NFL Academy.
The two-time Super Bowl winner told ESPN: “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 (NFL International Player Pathway Program, which Umenyiora used as a training base for Okoye’s slightly older peers).
“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.”
After Okoye’s decision to go to Tennessee was made, Umenyiora warned that nothing he could say could prepare his protégé for the journey ahead. However, he reassured Okoye that everything he needed was already inside him.
“It’s completely different than anything he’s experienced before. It’s the true definition of dog-eat-dog and the environment is so intense,” said Umenyiora.
“But nothing he’s going to see is going to be like Lagos. His whole life is going to prepare him for that. He’s going to get there; he’s going to see some incredible things, some crazy things and some athletes just like him, but the mentality and the spirit that he has from Africa won’t allow him to back down. It just won’t.
“I don’t really need to say anything. The fact that he’s sitting here, right now, having this conversation, is testament to the mental capacity and the ability as a person and he’s going to be successful without a shadow of a doubt.”