“I learned that Coach Jones can run,” the prospect said with a grin. “He’s really fast.”
Asked how he discovered the head man’s speed, Okonya laughed.
“I hit him with a water balloon,” the prospect admitted. “Then me and Tadarryl (Marshall, a committed receiver from Leeds, Alabama) were chasing him with a bucket of water. He’s pretty fast.”
Jones chased Okonya on the recruiting trail for 18 months before getting his commitment on May 15, so the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder from Riverdale (Ga.) High School probably relished the chance to return the favor on the turf at Shields-Watkins Field. In the two months since he went public he says his commitment has grown stronger.
“Compared to a couple of months ago I feel extremely comfortable,” he said. “I can see myself coming here, staying here, creating a life here.”
Ranked the No. 62 defensive end in the Class of 2016 by Scout, Okonya recently saw his star rating slip from four to three. He remains a hot commodity, however, with several schools continuing to try and pry him away from the Vols.
Despite the ongoing interest he said he still feels “pretty solid to Tennessee,” adding that Orange Carpet Day strengthened the bond through “being around this special group of people.”
Okonya conceded that “You don’t get to see facilities like these too often,” calling them “top-notch.” He said Saturday’s visit “made me more comfortable with Knoxville, more comfortable with the coaching staff and the players. I just like being around the people here.”
One of those people Okonya enjoys is defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
“Me and coach Strip have a real good relationship,” the player said. “He’s just a cool guy to talk to, a good mentor for the couple of times I’ve been around him. He’s a pretty good guy.”
Now that the recruiting process is largely behind him, Okonya is determined to finish his high school career with a bang. He’d like to lead Riverdale to a great season this fall.
“I’m pretty focused on it,” he said. “We take things one at a time at my school, so we’re working on the summer portion right now — getting bigger, stronger, faster. That’s the main thing.”
Asked by InsideTennessee to describe his game, Okonya replied: “I’m a long guy, so I’m able to disrupt plays in various ways — whether it may be slowing down the ball, getting to the quarterback or getting extension off the offensive lineman. My length plays a lot in my game.”
Though lacking the ideal heft for defensive end, Okonya shows promise as a pass rusher.
“I’m more of a speed rusher for the most part,” he said. “Coach Stripling is going to work with me on all of my technique: my hand placement, my foot placement, where my eyes are and stuff like that.”
Okonya was blown away by Orange Carpet Day, noting that “It was definitely different” than his visits to other schools, then adding: “They had everything set up for us and it was an extremely fun day.”
Still, the highlight was chasing Butch Jones with a bucket of water.
“Oh, yeah,” Okonya said. “It had to be. Had to be.”
Defensive linemen rarely make great impact as college freshmen but there are exceptions. Derek Barnett starred at end for the 2014 Vols, recording 10 sacks en route to leading the team in tackles for loss (20.5) and hurries (8).
Okonya is encouraged by Barnett’s Year 1 impact, noting: “Looking at guys like that makes me think I could come in, follow in those footsteps and be as great, if not greater than those players.”
The biggest hurdle he faces may be adding some weight to his lanky 6-foot-6 frame. He’ll need more bulk to hang with the 320-pound SEC offensive tackles he’ll face at Tennessee.
“I see me getting to 260 or 270,” he told IT. “At that weight I would still be able to move with my athleticism.”
Okonya is unwilling to sacrifice any of his athleticism. After all, he’s struggling to catch Butch Jones as it is.