For a team with a offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, the key will be the play of the Sooners' defense and its best player, lineman OGBONNIA OKORONKWO
THE BEST DEFENSIVE player in the Big 12 never thought he'd be a football player. In fact, until OGBONNIA (OBO) OKORONKWO was a sophomore in high school, he didn't really know how the game was played. Okoronkwo was planning to be a pharmacist when a high school football coach spotted the 6' 1" 180-pounder with the long arms and told him, "Come play D-end for me."
"What's a D-end?" Okoronkwo asked.
The son of Nigerian immigrants (his dad is a lawyer, and his mom is a nurse), Okoronkwo hid the fact that he was playing on Houston's Alief Taylor High football team from his parents for more than a year. "My mom is a worrywart," he says. When he eventually invited them to come watch him, "they were surprised I was actually good," he says.
Okoronkwo arrived at Oklahoma four years ago as an under-the-radar 205-pound freshman. He was overwhelmed by the Sooners' playbook. It was embarrassing to feel so lost. "I didn't know anything about football," he says. "I was learning a lot slower than our other freshmen and sophomores in [defensive coordinator Mike Stoops's] room. I was making more than 10 busts at practice. But Coach Mike [Stoops] stuck with me. I'm really grateful for that."
Okoronkwo lost count of how many times he thought about leaving Norman to head home to Houston those first two years. "My roommate, Jordan Evans, and Coach [Tim] Kish kept telling me, 'You're gonna be a really good player once you get it.' But I kept thinking, Am I ever gonna get it—whatever it is?"
Okoronkwo let his frustration with football seep into his schoolwork. By the end of his freshman year, the coaches were losing patience. One day head coach Bob Stoops called him into his office.
"He was giving me one more chance," Okoronkwo says. "I didn't deserve it. Walking into his office that day, I had checked out. I was more surprised than anything. He said, 'Don't make me regret it.'"
By 2016, Okoronkwo bulked up to a sculpted 245 pounds while still maintaining his 4.5 speed. Okoronkwo says the two biggest areas he began to improve in were his ability to play in space and his honed awareness on what's coming at him. "Looking back, it was just a process," says Okoronkwo. "Not everybody starts the race at the same place."
In 2016, his first season as a starter, Okoronkwo finally got it. He piled up nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss. This year OU shifted to a four-man front, with Okoronkwo moving from linebacker to defensive end. His 17½ tackles for loss are second in the Big 12. "For him to make it to where he's at now is a beautiful thing because there was a point where you didn't know if you were gonna see him the next day," says defensive assistant Erik Striker.
Mike Stoops says Okoronkwo has become a coach on the field to his younger teammates and that he has made the most improvement of any player he's ever coached. "He's lucky he's still here," Stoops says. "And we're lucky too."
BY THE NUMBERS
Yards per play by the offense, a full yard more than any other team in the nation.
Yards per play allowed by the Sooners' defense, which ranks 64th in the country.