Okoli grows into starting offensive tackle role as 5th-year senior
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State offensive tackle Chima Okoli spent his first 15 years growing up in Virginia Beach, Va.
But, when his father, Emeka, visited the University of Abuja in Nigeria as part of the Fulbright Scholar Program, Okoli spent two years there.
"Living in Nigeria was great -- it gave me a chance to really reconnect with where you're from, where my family is from," the 6-foot-4, 301-pound Okoli said. "My culture is really important to me, and I was able to see it firsthand.
"There's a lot more respect in the households over there. It's a big family-oriented culture. It's a great place."
Okoli, whose real first name is Chimaeze, has four older brothers and a younger sister. He is a second cousin of Emeka Okafor, the 2005 NBA rookie of the year who plays for the New Orleans Hornets.
Okoli's family moved from Nigeria to Virginia Beach shortly before he was born. He grew up participating in soccer, basketball and track. It was not until 10th grade at Salem High School that Okoli first started playing football.
"One day, I was walking to the cafeteria and I saw one of the [football coaches], and he was like, `You should give football a shot,' " Okoli said. "Pretty much, I joined the team after that. It was really by luck. I took a chance.
"Soon after that, we moved."
Okoli did not play football while living in Nigeria, but he rejoined the team at Salem three games into his senior season after his family returned to the United States.
"At that point, I had gotten pretty big," Okoli said. "And I really started to play well and attract interest from colleges."
Okoli, a first-team all-state football player who also was shot-putter in track and a basketball player, picked Penn State in large part because he wanted to play for Joe Paterno.
"It's not every day you get to play for the greatest coach in sports," he said.
Okoli, a fifth-year senior who graduated in May with his degree in advertising/public relations, spent his first three years in Happy Valley as a defensive lineman. He redshirted as a freshman and managed one tackle each in 2008 and '09 while seeing limited action in 15 games.
He was shifted to offensive tackle in the spring of '10. He backed up Lou Eliades for the first four games last season at right tackle.
Okoli took over the starting job after Eliades suffered a season-ending knee injury and started eight of the final nine games.
"The first start was nerve-wracking against Iowa and very tough, but I settled down after that and got more comfortable as the season went on," Okoli said. "That experience will be a big help this season."
Okoli's counterpart at left tackle, fifth-year senior Quinn Barham, also returns. He was on the field for 917 snaps, the third-highest total on the team.
Barham, Okoli and left guard Johnnie Troutman are part of an offensive line that returns three starters and allowed 12 sacks last year, second fewest in the Big Ten Conference and 13th fewest in Division I-A.
"This time last year, we were still a little shaky," Barham said. "I was still nervous coming in at left tackle. Right now, I'm a lot more confident, Chima's a lot more confident at right tackle. We're almost like coaches now.
"[In the offseason], we were getting the guys together on Mondays and Wednesdays and going over plays, blocking schemes, pass-blocking, run-blocking. And we started getting the freshmen into the mix. I think the coaches are very happy."
Barham, 6 feet 3, 304 pounds, goes by the name "DurhamBull67" on his Twitter account as a tribute to his hometown of Durham, N.C., and his jersey number. He graduated in May with a degree in kinesiology.
He has played guard, center and tackle and was one of three offensive linemen to start every game last year, joining center Doug Klopacz and All-American right guard Stefen Wisniewski, who both graduated.
Paterno, who expressed concern this spring about his offensive line, which likely will include Matt Stankiewitch at center and John Urschel or DeOn'tae Pannell at right guard, now concedes the unit has "a chance to be good. We have some pretty good players in there."
First Published August 24, 2011 12:00 am