In the film room...Ikenna Okeke
• Stats: Credited with 70 tackles and five interceptions during his junior season with the Bulldogs.
• Assets: Strong safety/outside linebacker frame. Outstanding transition out of the backpedal, and a smooth, loose-hip athlete with quality football instincts. Glides in and out of changes in direction.
Outstanding pad level. Really gets into the lower body of a ball carrier. Plays with a smooth agility as he transitions from one movement to the next as if he’s on a greased rail. A long-striding, agile, versatile athlete who also plays receiver, where he shows quality ball skills.
High-level football instincts and anticipation. Has a nose for the football and flows to the play with a natural ease. Very good footwork; extremely light on his feet. Catches the football well without great leaping ability. A smart football player who anticipates where the action will be.
• Room for improvement: Quick, not fast. Listed at 4.61 in the 40, which probably is a stretch. A flat-footed runner. A limited vertical jumper. May not have the flat-out speed to play too deep on the back end.
• Top offers: Notre Dame. ACC: Louisville, North Carolina, Pittsburgh. Big Ten: Northwestern, Purdue; SEC: Missouri, Tennessee Vanderbilt; Big 12: Kansas; Other: Cincinnati, Memphis; Interest: Florida, Mississippi
• Early line: The offer sheet is relatively light, and three schools have emerged as frontrunners: home-state Tennessee, Notre Dame and Stanford.
“Stanford is in my top three and Notre Dame actually is one or two right now,” said Okeke to Irish Illustrated’s Steve Hare on April 28. “That stands out to me a lot, and then really it’s just Tennessee because it’s my home state and it was my first offer, so I keep them up there.”
Okeke visited Knoxville three times for Vols games (Alabama, Kentucky, Florida) during the 2014 season.
Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston has been the point man for the Irish in the recruitment of Okeke. An offer from Notre Dame was extended in March. A visit from Elston/Notre Dame to Smyrna High School is imminent.
“I talk to Coach Elston a lot, and they’re always sending me the ‘4 for 40s’ and asking me when I’m going to get up there this summer,” Okeke said. “It’s just information about their school. The last one was about how many championships they’ve won.”
Okeke plans to visit Notre Dame and Stanford this summer. He’s called Tennessee “second to none.” Added Okeke: “It’s easy to fall in love with Tennessee.”
But the Irish and Cardinal appear to be at the forefront.
“Really, the academic standpoint from Notre Dame and Stanford, that’s really what makes them the top two,” Okeke said. “It’s the opportunity I could have on the field…(but) what really stands out (is) on and off the field. I know a degree from Notre Dame would be huge.”
• ND’s 2016 safety recruiting: At the start of May, Okeke – according to Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson’s Master List – is the only current safety recruit with the arrow pointing up. The only four-stars in the group are Craig Watts (St. Petersburg, Fla.), who is looking strongly at the Irish and Florida State, and JoeJuan Williams (Nashville, Tenn.), who is being pursued by the elite.
The rest are three-stars, including recent offer Chacho Ulloa (Corona, Calif.). Micah Croom (Anaheim, Calif.) is verbally committed to Utah. D.J. Morgan (Bellflower, Calif.) has family ties to Notre Dame, but has yet to receive an offer. Chris Taylor (Rancho Cotate, Calif.) visited for the Blue-Gold Game, but also does not hold an offer.
• ND’s 2016 safety depth chart: Elijah Shumate and one-year fill-in Avery Sebastian will be gone, and many believe that if Max Redfield parlays his junior season into a standout 13-game performance, he’ll bypass his final year of eligibility, although Redfield is far from a finished product at the present time.
Nicky Baratti would have a fifth year of eligibility, but his health (shoulder) is a perpetual concern. John Turner also would have a fifth year of eligibility, and yet he hasn’t established himself at the safety position. That leaves Drue Tranquill, who will be a junior, and 2016 sophomores Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta.
• Summary: Okeke is one of those prospects that isn’t fast but is an excellent athlete; isn’t fleet of foot per se, yet has very quick feet.
The combination of traits sounds like a contradiction, but while he’s not going to win many 40-yard dash comparisons, he’s smooth and nimble out of his backpedal, has rapid-fire footwork, and will come up and strike a ball carrier/receiver, usually somewhere around mid-thigh or lower, which makes him a difficult defender to escape when he has his target in range.
The long and short of it is he’s a quality football player with winning traits. The question is just how high of a level he’s capable of playing. It’s great to be a quality football player with winning traits, but if he’s a step behind the action, that’s not good enough. By the same token, he has such a natural ability to smoothly transition from backpedal to where the action is that he eliminates the need for that extra tenth of a second (or tenth-and-a-half) by gliding in and out of direction changes.
Here’s the other thing to consider: he may very well be an outside linebacker. He has the frame for it, the physicality for it, and he certainly has the quickness for it, particularly if he’s a step short on the back end. This is the kind of football player that you aren’t enamored with when you turn the tape on, and then the more you watch him, the more you realize that he has all the tools to compensate for the ones that he lacks. Okeke maximizes the gifts God has bestowed upon him.
At least at this stage of the process, the Irish are struggling at safety. Okeke is the only one to which the arrow is pointing up. The ones that are more enamored with Notre Dame haven’t received an offer. If Notre Dame can’t close on Florida’s Craig Watts and Tennessee’s JoeJuan Williams, they’ll have to cast a much wider net at safety. Notre Dame could be in critical shape at safety in ’15 if there are injuries and in ’16 if Max Redfield were to leave early. Even if Redfield is around in ’16, the Irish desperately need quality bodies at safety.