There was a time, really not all that long ago, when it looked like Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was going to be known simply for having one of the coolest/strangest names ever at Oklahoma.
His lack of opportunities on the field because of his lack of maturity off of it seemed to spell the end of the Obo era in Norman before it even got started.
Just as we were beginning to close the book, another chapter, the best one yet, was about to be written. It’s one Okoronkwo can be proud of and one that continues to grow with each time he’s on the field and hopefully more to write Jan. 2 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against No. 14 Auburn in New Orleans.
“Just handling my business now,” Okoronkwo said. “You don’t have to worry about where I’m going to be. I’m going to handle my business. Just growing up, it just comes to a point where you don’t want people chasing you around no more. Just get it done. It makes life easier.”
Getting it done is easier said than actually being accomplished, and it took a while for Okoronkwo to reach this stage.
Coming out of Houston Alief Taylor for the 2013 class, he wasn’t even the crown jewel of his own team. OU went all-in to try to land fellow defensive end Torrodney Prevot, but it never materialized.
Okoronkwo was committed to Oklahoma State, while Prevot eventually signed with Oregon. Linebackers coach Tim Kish kept coming, though. He knew he saw something special, and OU coaches weren’t about to let it slip away.
Eventually, Okoronkwo flipped and signed with OU. A redshirt year followed combined with nobody really having any idea what role he could play and what role he should play for the Sooners.
“Played D-Line and then came here, was going back and forth, played behind guys like Devante Bond, Geneo (Grissom), (Eric) Striker, so he was kind of waiting his turn,” roommate and linebacker Jordan Evans said. “So now he’s finally getting a full year with plays under his belt so I expect next year he’s going to take flight.”
You could make the argument Okoronkwo has already taken flight this year. Now the oldest guy in the room, the time to be hiding in the shadows were gone. The time of missing classes and fooling around were over.
If OU was going to make strides at outside linebacker, it was going to be under the direction of Okoronkwo. A scary proposition in 2014, but a great sight to see in 2016.
“As much as anything, and we love Obo, always plays hard and has a heart of gold, even just some responsibility with class and things like that,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “Overall, he’s grown up. Pushed the envelope early but little by little, I tease him all the time, he gets a huge giggle and laugh, how do I not see you on this list when talking about those issues? That’s been the case for over a year. A year and a half, two years he’s been that way.
“And that’s what you want where your guys mature finally and learn and grow in the process of it. He’s done that. He’s one of our better leaders now, off the field as well as on. He works hard all the time. He loves to play. And has become a leader in showing the other guys I used to do it this way, and it doesn’t work. I’m doing it the right way now, and it works. I appreciate him saying that.”
The right way is handling his business off the field and in the classroom to get those opportunities on the field.
Okoronkwo has seized that chance and made the most of it as a redshirt junior. He’s third on the team with 67 tackles and by far the leader in sacks at 9.5. Nobody else even has three as Okoronkwo has blossomed into that pass-rushing extraordinaire.
But to fully make that next leap, he had to become more than that. Not just a situational guy who can cause issues off the edge. He had to be an every down type of player.
“When it’s my time to drop (down in coverage), I really focus in, bend my knees more, the little things,” Okoronkwo said. “Everything just moves slower now. Before, I’d go out there with big eyes, looking at everything. The game was just flying by and I had to keep up.
“Now I feel like I can see everything and I know what’s coming. I don’t panic at all. If the call flips, I can get it, relay it to the next guy. After a full season, everything just kind of happens, second nature.”
Some OU fans might have to pause when he says full season, but he’s not wrong. He’s a redshirt junior, but this was the first year where he was featured prominently for the defense.
It made the choice easy for him in deciding he was coming back to OU for his senior season. Not only for the team to accomplish bigger and better things, but for him to progress as a player and give him the best chance possible in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has been with Okoronkwo through it all. The good, the bad, the puzzling, but he knows he has a leader for this year and definitely moving forward into 2017.
“It just grows. We lean on his leadership now,” Mike Stoops said. “I would have never said that three years ago or two years ago. It's his time, and he's really accepted his role and knows he can make a difference on the team, and he has that type of ability and he has that type of leadership.
“I would have never thought he was going to make it. He was about out of chances, but thank God he's straightened out.”