Okorafor ready to pave way for WMU ground game

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — Chukwuma Okorafor plopped his mammoth frame in a comfortable chair inside Western Michigan’s locker room earlier this week after a workout to prepare for his senior season for the Mid-American Conference champion Broncos.

Okorafor, affectionately known as “Chukes,” is still a teenager — he turns 20 in August — and looking forward to trying to help the Broncos knock off the big boys, like they did a year ago when they defeated Northwestern and Illinois of the Big Ten en route to a 13-0 record before a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin.

Okorafor, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound left tackle, did an outstanding job of protecting Zach Terrell’s blind side last year, playing on an offensive line that allowed just 16 sacks while the Broncos averaged 41.6 points.

With Terrell and All-American receiver Corey Davis (first-round pick of the Titans) gone, Okorafor will try to open holes for the Broncos to pound the ball on the ground with senior Jarvion Franklin, junior Jamauri Bogan and Matt Falcon — a former Michigan commit — leading the way while quarterbacks Tom Flacco and Jon Wassink gain valuable experience.

Franklin, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year his freshman year in 2014, is just 1,400 yards from cracking the top 20 list for all-time rushing leaders in college football history. He gained 1,551 yards his freshman year and 1,353 last season, including a program-record 281 in a win over Akron.

Okorafor knows all about Falcon since he played with him at Southfield High School before moving on to WMU. Falcon, who sat out last year after suffering a knee injury prior to the season opener at Southfield in 2015, is now healthy and ready to play.

“I think he looked fast, better than when he was at high school — could be one of the best (backs) in the MAC,” Okorafor said. “He has his speed back up. He has his twitch. We have so much back with Jamauri, Jarvion, Leo (Ekwoge), Bell (Levante Bellamy), Tuck (Davon Tucker), just so much there. If we focus and take care of business both on and off the field we should be back-to-back MAC champs."

Okorafor returns to an experienced offensive line that includes All-MAC second-team center John Keenoy. He plans to follow his former teammates in guard Taylor Moton (Panthers, second round in 2017) and tackle Willie Beavers (Vikings, fourth round in 2016) to the NFL.

The Broncos face a more challenging non-conference slate, which includes a season-opening road trip to USC on Sept. 2, followed by a Week 2 date at Michigan State.

But Okorafor is used to battling the big boys. He was born in Nigeria, then moved to South Africa at age 5 and the next year to Botswana before moving to the U.S. at age 12.

“It was difficult not knowing what to expect when I came here, being a different culture and all,” Okorafor said of coming to America. “Luckily, I was with my family and when I started my freshman year in high school I went with one of my brothers and that made it better. And, if you made a mistake (in class) they weren’t as tough on you as it was in Botswana.

“I was 16 when I came here (WMU), real young, but that’s kind of the way it’s been my whole life. I was 15, going up against 17- and 18-year-olds when I first started playing football, but I felt age really didn’t matter, but instead how good you wanted to be, how much time you wanted to put into getting better.

“My junior year I never dreamed of playing college football, but Coach (Southfield coach Tim) Conley said I had the ability to play, so I stepped my game up my senior year, focused and played as well as I could.”

“He just wanted to be a punter and a kicker since he had played soccer before, but we made him move to offensive line,” Conley said. “He was 16 when he played his senior year and that was just his second full year of football. He was so smart and so big and a hard worker, so we knew he would develop (into a college prospect).

“He had 40-some offers with Florida, Arkansas and Ohio State coming on board after he had committed to Western Michigan. Urban Meyer personally invited him to come to Ohio State for a visit. Virginia Tech, Virginia, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Wisconsin, Iowa — all of them offered him.”

Okorafor came to WMU at 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds with tremendous upside since he was just 16. Now, he is considered to be the fourth-best tackle prospect in college football by Mel Kiper and is ranked as the 10th-best senior for all positions for next year’s NFL draft by Lindy’s.

“I’d love to play in the NFL,” Okorafor said. “That’s (rankings) all good, but I still have to showcase my skills, play well and help my team win. I’ll worry about all that stuff in December.

“When I came in my freshman year I started to learn from some of the best, Willie (Beavers), Taylor (Moton), watched how they worked, how they used their hands, how they used their feet and that made my game grow daily.

“I feel my knowledge of the game is my biggest strength, the area where I’ve grown the most. It’s all about paying attention to details. I know if my defender will go inside or outside by how he lines up. It kind of clicked my sophomore year, just about focusing on the details.”

Okorafor said he could bench 225 pounds twice when he came to WMU, playing in 12 games his freshman year, then starting all 13 games at right tackle his sophomore year before moving to left tackle last season. Now, he can bench 225 pounds 20 times.

Okorafor has helped the Broncos to their best three-year record in school history (29-11) and now will try to lead them to back-to-back MAC championships for the first time in program history. The MAC West will more than likely be decided Nov. 24 at Toledo, a team the Broncos beat the last two years, including 55-35 last season.

Okorafor is confident WMU will make a smooth transition from former head coach P.J. Fleck — now at Minnesota — to new coach Tim Lester.

“I think the offense will be kind of the same with a little more twists and turns, just different names for plays, more simple names to kind of allow us to play fast,” Okorafor said. “I feel since Coach Lester played here, it also gives him more of an edge too.”