The Tennessee Titans signed several undrafted free agents at the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft. Former Maryland defensive linemen Sam Okuayinonu is reportedly one of those players. Okuayinonu enjoyed a fruitful campaign for the Terps in 2021, having recorded 55 total tackles and 6.0 sacks in 12 appearances. Okuayinonu’s journey up to this point has been incredibly inspiring. Okuayinonu was born in war-torn Liberia. A civil war unfortunately claimed the lives of more than 250,000 citizens and exposed Okuayinonu to horrors no child should ever have to witness.
Okuayinonu recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports about his remarkable journey to America, how he formed a relationship with Tennessee throughout the pre-draft process, what he can add to the defense, reflecting on his final college football season, and what his goals and aspirations are ahead of rookie mini-camp and training camp.
JM: Your journey has been well documented. You were born in Liberia, which was unfortunately torn apart by a civil war that claimed so many innocent lives. What do you most recall about your remarkable journey to America?
SO: I’ll forever remember the moment we landed in Boston at Logan International Airport. I remember taking that moment in. I was breathing that fresh air in a new country. I knew it represented a fresh start for my mom and I. That’s what I recall the most. I remember walking outside the airport for the first time and just looking at Boston, the city within itself. I looked at the skyline like, wow, this is really amazing.
JM: What a moment that must have been. Your mother, aunt, and other family members worked tirelessly to secure safe passage to America. Having watched your mother overcome so much adversity, what has that taught you about hard work and perseverance?
SO: I get my work ethic from my mother. It comes from the way she raised me and who she is as a person. She’s always working. There’s always something to be done. There’s always another level to achieve. That’s just the type of mentality she’s always had. She’s a grinder, a go-getter, if you will. I adopted that mentality and implemented it into my game. When I’m tired in the fourth quarter or whatever, I just think of her and tell myself I have no business being tired (laughs). My mom is tired too, but she gets up and works her butt off every single day. She’s still putting in work to make sure we have food on the table. Who am I to be tired right now? That motivates me to go harder.
JM: I love that and it’s obvious when watching your tape. You never take a play off. The 2020 season was cut short due to the pandemic. You returned to play a full season in 2021 and you had a big campaign, having recorded 6.0 sacks. What changed for you in 2021?
SO: My overall mentality changed. I knew it was my last season. I came in with the mentality that I had to leave everything out there. I wanted to string it all together. I took everything I had learned in previous years, from 2019, from my JUCO experiences, and appropriately applied it. I had to trust my instincts. I put faith in my ability to play fast and physical. I really put it all together. I left everything out there. That was my goal, that’s where my mind was at. I think I did a pretty good job in 2021.
JM: You did just that. You’ve now signed with the Titans after going undrafted. How did that opportunity come about?
SO: I spoke with coach Mike Vrabel a lot throughout the pre-draft process. I spoke with defensive line coach Terrell Williams as well. I spoke to multiple people within the organization, and I spoke with them multiple times. It wasn’t clear if they were going to draft me. I knew they were considering the possibility, but I also knew I could go undrafted. They were constantly in touch with me. Defensive line coach Williams and I really built a connection throughout the process. When I went undrafted, I already knew where I was going (laughs). It’s not like I had a difficult decision to make. It was always Tennessee in my mind. They showed me so much love. They always showed up for me by showing genuine interest. They had a clear plan for me in mind, unlike other teams that weren’t really sure what they wanted to do with me from a position standpoint. I can play both inside and outside. They really wanted me in Tennessee. I chose them because this is where I can develop into the best version of myself.
JM: It feels like the relationship you built with the Titans was a big reason why you chose them over other offers you received. How would you describe your pass rush arsenal? What do you consider to be your go-to moves and counters?
SO: My go-to move is definitely a power move. I’m a power guy. I like to run through a guy’s face, man. A lot of guys can’t sit there and sustain what I’m able to do in the trenches. I just run through them time and time again. It takes a lot of will power to line up and come back for more. Once they’re locked into my power, my bull rush, I can probably hit them with a stutter-swipe or something like that.
That’s how I can throw them off their rhythm. I try to make it look the same when I’m coming off the ball full speed on a snap-by-snap basis. I have a quick first step and it all looks the same so I don’t tip my hand. I can hit him with a stab-club and try to set up my bull rush. He might sit on power. If he oversets me or cuts me up on the outside, I can give him an inside move. I would definitely say that my favorite move is power though. I just love breaking guys down by running through their face over and over again.
JM: I love that. You’re a violent player. Would you say your game is more advanced as a pass rusher, or run stopper at this point in time?
SO: That’s a great question. I believe I’m an every-down, three-down player (laughs). I feel like I can defend the run and rush the passer at a pretty high level. I see myself being pretty balanced overall. I feel like I’m a guy that can do both of those things right now.
JM: You quickly mentioned playing at the JUCO ranks. You attended Mesabi Range Community College before playing at Maryland. What was the biggest difference between D-I and JUCO?
SO: The tempo of the game is the biggest difference. The tempo and style of play. The competition is a big difference as well. You learn a lot more at the D-I level of course. Everything is different. I would even mention the food that’s available to the players (laughs). The culture is just different. Everything is different, man. Life is different when you go D-I, especially because I landed at a Power-5 school in The Big Ten. It was very different from JUCO (laughs). Every offensive linemen is 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. That’s what you’re up against every single week. You better come with it (laughs).
JM: I don’t know how well you know the Titans roster, but is there one teammate you’re excited to learn from?
SO: I would definitely say Jeffery Simmons. I’m excited that my guy Chig [Chigoziem Okonkwo] is up there too, man! Chig and I played together at Maryland. I can’t forget about Chance Campbell man, who they drafted as well. People forget he played with us at Maryland before going to Ole Miss in 2021. I’m excited to be out there with my teammates. We’re accomplishing our dreams and goals together, and that’s pretty special. That’s going to be a lot of fun.
I’m looking forward to learning from Jeffery Simmons. I think he’s a beast. He’s such a dominant player. I’ve been watching him since he was at Mississippi State. I’m very familiar with his game. He has a crazy skill set. He’s been getting better and better every year. Working alongside a guy like that would be a blessing.
JM: Jeffery Simmons is a terrific player to learn from. I forgot about you sharing the field with Chigoziem Okonkwo and Chance Campbell. Have you spoken with them since the draft?
SO: Yeah, I for sure spoke with both of them (laughs). I called Chig immediately after the draft. I told him it looks like we’re both going to Tennessee (laughs). We had a moment on the phone together. It was pretty cool, man. I can’t believe we’re both going to the same place. Chig is a guy I’ve grown close with throughout the years. I’m happy to have a friend on the Titans (laughs).
JM: It sounds like you have a few of them! I’ve really appreciated your time today. I’m thankful that you’ve allowed me to share your incredible story with Titans fans. In closing, what are your goals and aspirations like over these next few months as you attempt to make Tennessee’s final roster?
SO: My goal is to make that 53-man roster. That comes first and foremost. Secondly, I want to earn a role on the team and become a contributor. I want to contribute to my team and help the Titans win a bunch of games in 2022. I want to help the team in every single way I can. I’m going to show up in excellent shape. I’m trying to show up and set myself apart. I’m that underdog with a chip on my shoulder. I’m ready to get active. Let’s go to work. I’m ready to prove everybody wrong.
Editor’s note: This conversation occurred in early May, more than two weeks before the scheduled rookie mini-camp.