Seizing the Opportunity

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It took just six games for Ebele Okakpu to see the football field as a highly touted freshman against Notre Dame in 2008. But that limelight would not last long, as he struggled to find his way until a change in approach helped him climb the depth chart and find a spot in the starting lineup.

The future was full of possibilities for Okakpu as a four-star linebacker standout at Roswell (Ga.) High School five years ago. Tim McFarlin, his high school head coach, told Inside Carolina in Aug. '07 that he believed Okakpu would stay home and play for the Georgia Bulldogs over numerous scholarships from schools such as North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech.

But then-UNC linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen was relentless in pursuing Okakpu, eventually convincing the SuperPrep All-America to visit Chapel Hill. That trip was all it took for Okakpu to decide where he wanted to play his college ball.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder played in the final seven games of his true freshman season under Thigpen's tutelage. The offseason brought significant change, however, as Thigpen bolted for Auburn and Art Kaufman arrived from Southern Mississippi to assume linebackers coach duties.

Thigpen's "player's coach" approach was replaced with Kaufman's old-school disciplined style that proved abrasive initially to most of the linebacker corps. Okakpu had a tougher time with the adjustment than most of his teammates.

"It was a little difficult," Okakpu said. "Coach Kaufman and me didn't get along at first. He sees it as more that you've got to be a better man first before he's going to give you any praise or anything. He wants you to be more than just a football player. He wants you to be a good person."

It took Okakpu his entire sophomore season to understand his new coach's style, though, falling from the high of playing in a big game against the Irish as a true freshman to the low of wondering if he wanted to hang up his cleats.

Okakpu's cousin, New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, provided levelheaded support and logic during conversations in that turbulent period of time.

"When I wasn't playing, [Umenyiora] just told me to keep my head up for the most part," Okakpu said. "He basically told me that he knows I have it in me and he really helped me to stay positive, because at one point I was down and thinking I shouldn't be playing or that I didn't even want to play anymore. So he helped when I was in a rough spot."

A revelation occurred after his sophomore season when his parents told him that Kaufman had called them to discuss how he was doing in school and within the program. That helped him to start to understand that Kaufman was more focused on his well being than his ability as a football player.

"My whole thing, and I tell our players, if you will do it off the field, you have a chance to do it on the field," Kaufman said. "If you don't take care of it off the field, you won't take care of it on the field… If you don't manage it off the field, eventually it will catch up with you here."

And so Okakpu started to change his ways. He placed a greater emphasis on academics and began making the right decisions off the field, some as simple as getting to bed at a decent hour. During practice, he bought into Kaufman's technique teachings on how he wanted his linebackers to play.

Add in some advice and encouragement from departed Tar Heel linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant and Okakpu has finally begun to maximize his talents.

"This is his last go around, so he's like, ‘I've got to make the best of it,'" head coach Everett Withers said on Monday. "He's a talent. He's been a talent from day one. It's just a matter of putting it all together and I think he's starting to see that he needs to do that to play on the field."

Darius Lipford's strong effort in spring ball allowed him to enter training camp listed as the tentative starter at the third linebacker spot, but Okakpu's play has elevated him to that coveted role with the first team defense.

"Ebele has been a really pleasant surprise and he's done a great job for 10 or 12 practices that we've had," Kaufman said. "He's been on point like he's never been. I don't know whether it's him or me, but for whatever reason, he's where he needs to be. And that's really all that matters."

Okakpu acknowledges that his journey has enabled him to be in his current position. Without that adversity, he may have never made the necessary strides to realize his potential.

"I feel like I've just become a lot more serious about where I want to go," Okakpu said. "I want to look to my future. Being younger I was behind Quan and Bruce and I couldn't really see the next step."

But Okakpu's learning process is not over. In some respects, it really hasn't even started yet. There's a reason that he's counting down the days to the season opener.

"I'm pumped," said Okakpu, who recently changed numbers from No. 58 to No. 41. "It's like a dream come true. I just want to play. That's all I've wanted to do is to get on that field and show what I have."

Okakpu will finally get that opportunity in less than three weeks against James Madison on Sept. 3.

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