Graduate student Sam Okuayinonu, Maryland football’s 2021 sack leader through three games, quit the game of football his junior year of high school.
Football wasn't even Okuayinonu’s first choice of sport when he was younger. Coming over to the United States from Liberia as a kid, the Terps’ defensive lineman originally competed primarily in soccer as a midfielder and defender before venturing over to the football in his final year at Lowell High School in Lowell, Massachusetts.
“I really started playing like my senior year, I tried it out junior year I didn’t really like it,” Okuayinonu said. “I actually hated hitting and stuff. And now I am one of the most physical guys on defense, so it’s just like, just learning, and it’s getting the love for the game and just growing that passion, so it was definitely a hard transition but I got used to it.”
Before choosing football, though, Okuayinonu was fairly reluctant to make the transfer over to a different sport. It took a solid amount of convincing and outside work for him to make the change from the pitch to the gridiron.
“I mean, I started to get really big in high school and all my friends and my cousins that had played football, they really persuaded me, man,” Okuayinonu said. “It was a hard transition at first, but you know, soccer is not as physical as football. Just getting the little details down, at first I didn’t even know my footwork, it was horrible man. As time goes on you learn new things from experience, from other people and, you know, the longer I played the game, the easier it got for me but it was not an easy transition.”
The now 6-foot-2, 280-pound lineman eventually ended up playing at the junior college level prior to making the switch to the University of Maryland. It’s safe to say Okuayinonu excelled before the move to College Park.
Okuayinonu was a three-star recruit and the sixth-best JUCO strong side defensive end in the nation after collecting 62 tackles, 21.5 of which were for a loss, and 17.5 sacks at Mesabi Range C.C. He was named the Minnesota College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and was an All-Region and All-MCAC First-Team selection as well. Even Okuayinonu said that he believed he was a football star after his short JUCO career, but he admitted that he was humbled when he came to Maryland to see all of the talented players that were in the program.
Okuayinonu’s experience at junior college is a shared one amongst some of his teammates on the current Maryland roster. Multiple Terps on the 2021 roster have been through JUCO, and those players have been able to create a special bond.
“All those JUCO guys, man, we got a special chemistry, like we understand we play for each other,” Okuayinonu said. “Living together is actually very helpful because we watched film together sometimes. The JUCO chemistry definitely, like you know, carries on because a lot of guys don’t really know about JUCO, but JUCO is a hard lifestyle, man, like you made it out of JUCO to a Division I school, you know, it’s like a mutual respect.”
After junior college, Okuayinonu started his Maryland career as a junior for the 2019 season. He ended up appearing in all but one of the 12 games from that year and even notched one start on the defensive line. He finished that season with 31 tackles and one sack. Then in 2020, Maryland’s five-game, COVID-19 shortened season, the then-senior Okuayinonu tallied 17 total tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.
However, even though it seemed Okuayinonu’s Maryland career was finished after his senior season, the NCAA allowed players to have an extra year of eligibility because of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the prior season.
For Okuayinonu, who was still learning and perfecting his technique at his spot on the team's defensive line, the extra season was just another chance for him to showcase himself for one more campaign.
“I think the big thing with Sam O., and I said this a few weeks ago, you know guys like him and [Tayon] Fleet-Davis, really benefitted from the COVID year,” Maryland head coach Michael Locksley said. “A guy that didn’t play football until like his junior year of high school, was a soccer player, moved over to the country late so he’s not like he grew up as a football player and I just think being able to add this extra year to him has really helped and benefited our team.”
Maryland’s head coach is certainly right. Okuayinonu has been a revelation for the Terps’ defensive line, and for the entire defense as a whole, through Maryland’s perfect 3-0 start to the season.
In Maryland’s wins over West Virginia, Howard, Illinois, in which the Terps have surrendered a mere 41 points, Okuayinonu has made his presence known on the defensive line with 12 total tackles and four sacks over the course of the three victories. His four solo sacks place him atop the Big Ten in that category through three games, as Okuayinonu is tied with Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson for the conference lead.
“He’s as explosive as any player in the country,” Locksley said of Okuayinonu. “He’s a guy that has a 600-pound type squat... like he’s a freak in the weight room and as he’s gained football experience and playing and taking the techniques that Brian Williams teaches him, he continues to get better and better.”
Okuayinonu has had a sack in each game this season and he most recently registered two sacks against Illinois in Maryland’s 20-17 road win to help give the program its first 3-0 start since the 2016 season.
His current 2021 season totals are atop Maryland’s leaders, as Okuayinonu is tied for fourth on the team in solo tackles, tied for third on the team in total tackles and he has the most sacks and tackles for a loss.
“I am a leader on the defensive line,” Okuayinonu said. “We want to be the best d-line in the nation, we want Maryland to be known for having the best d-linemen.”
Okuayinonu has received consistent leadership praise from Locksley after his torrid start on the defensive end, and his teammates are beginning to take notice.
“Sam O. is a monster, he’s a beast,” senior defensive lineman Greg Rose said. “Honestly like every day I look at him, I am amazed that I still get to play with him, you know, his work ethic, a lot of people don’t see it, but he puts in so much work and when he shows out on the field that’s just all the work that he put in. Sam O. is just an amazing person off the field, on the field, and that’s my brother.”
Okuayinonu’s defensive tenacity has undoubtedly played a key role in Maryland’s undefeated start to the 2021 season. For the super senior, his growth as a player in the Terps’ program and his rising stock in the college football world has opened the possibility of new avenues for his future after his career in College Park comes to an end.
“I think he’s putting himself in a position... because of what he’s doing, he’s creating some value for himself to afford him an opportunity to play at the next level,” Locksley said. “It’s great to see that for a guy like Sam O. because, again, young to the game of football but just keeps getting better and better and he’s been a tremendous leader for us coming back for that extra year.”
For now, Okuayinonu’s focus remains on extending Maryland’s three-game winning streak as it looks to stay afloat in a talented and crowded Big Ten conference with a matchup coming up against Kent State on Saturday in College Park.
And even though this season at Maryland may officially be Okuayinonu’s last as a Terrapin, he was grateful to receive a bonus year of eligibility with the team that took a chance on a former three-star JUCO recruit.
“Being able to come back and working throughout the whole spring and just sharpening my craft and, you know, just learning every day,” Okuayinonu said on receiving an opportunity to return to the program for his final year. “It was definitely like one of the best things that could’ve happened for me and my situation.”