Albania, or now known as the Republic of Albania, seems about as far a cry from the NFL as you or I sit here away from the Moon. However, University of Buffalo nose tackle, Kristjan Sokoli, is actually very close, considering he immigrated from the country at the tender age of 9 without knowing a lick of the English language.
After arriving, he didn’t grow up with the fresh new pair of Nike shoes, or the latest video games. His father, Gjon Sokoli, made a living as the janitor of an apartment complex, so money was by no means a commodity. Not only that, Kristjan had to deal with constantly being picked on at school by classmates, due to his inability to speak English. He picked it up though, whether in the classroom or hearing it on television.
“I say, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Father, I am doing homework.’ I say, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘The teacher is doing very well with me,’” Gjon said. “And little by little he start to teach me to speak English.”
Soccer was his first love, but his cousin, Edmir Sokoli, taught him the game that he now has a realistic shot of playing professionally, American football. Edmir, or “Eddie” as Kristjan calls him, was a standout at Bloomfield High School, known for his playing style, which was more often than not with reckless abandon.
Eventually, Edmir was arrested for armed robbery, but by his sophomore year of high school, Kristjan knew enough about his newfound game that he devoted 100 percent of his attention to it.
“You just got to keep fighting,” Sokoli said. “Even though sometimes it might not make a lot of sense you got to keep fighting and then you get to enjoy the better moments of it when it does make sense.”
At Bloomfield High School in New Jersey, Sokoli was a two-way lineman who even punted and kicked. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, his size earned him a scholarship to the University of Buffalo, under head coach Jeff Quinn.
“I remember the first time I shook his hand and said, ‘He’s got a lot of growth potential,’ ” Quinn said. “Simple as that. I look at his frame. And I do rely upon my coaching staff, especially Zach Duval,” he said, referring to his strength and conditioning coach. In other words, Quinn knew that Sokoli needed to add mass and a hard-working, blue-collar prospect like Sokoli, coupled with a good nutrition and training regimen could pay great dividends.
Sokoli kept an open mind, and with the help of Duval, a 220-pound piece of clay was molded into a 300-pound monster of a nose tackle for the Bulls.
“I know every day I used to write into my phone every single thing I ate,” Sokoli said. “Long story short, you average about 7,000 calories a day.” Those are a lot of calories, but they were used efficiently in the weightroom, where Sokoli currently boasts a bench press north of 400 pounds and a squat well over 600.
“You want to eat healthy, but when you want to gain that much weight you also have to sacrifice,” he said. “I didn’t eat horrible, but I had to eat a lot of different things so I could get my calorie count to where I needed to be.”
He became a fixture on the Bulls’ defensive line from his nose tackle spot and helped anchor a stingy defense, while also freeing up blockers for the playmaking Khalil Mack, who was the fifth-overall pick of Oakland in the 2014 NFL Draft. As a two-year starter, Sokoli totaled 95 tackles, including 15 for-a-loss, 2.5 sacks and his tall stature allowed him to carry the extra mass without robbing him of any of his athleticism.
“We know that the way you win in this business is to bring in the right kind of people with the work ethic necessary, but also to have a plan and develop them,” Quinn said. “We lean very heavily on him.
An NFL Combine snub, Sokoli can be summed up in one word-ruthless. He makes up for what he lacks in athleticism in heart with his non-stop hustle and determination, but he is sneaky athletic for a man his size. At the UB Pro Day, Sokoli put up some eye-popping numbers for a big man, showing up at only 290 pounds. He ran the 40 in 4.84 seconds, which was better than highly-touted Leonard Williams of USC. His 31 reps on the bench would’ve ranked fourth-best among all the defensive lineman there, and his 38-inch vertical jump would’ve been third-best.
“A two-year starter, Sokoli immigrated to the United States from Albania with his family in 2000, took up football and earned a scholarship to Buffalo,” CBS Sports analyst Rob Rang said. “A tireless, blue collar worker, he doesn’t play with ideal functional strength, but he played out of position at nose guard in college and shows the movement skills and size dimensions that are worth developing.”
For a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose defensive line depth needs to be shored up, Sokoli would be an ideal late draft selection or undrafted free agent pickup. His size and skillset somewhat remind me of Samford’s Nick Williams and Stanford’s Josh Mauro, two recent projects, who despite their promise, were snatched off the practice squad. He possesses the requisite length the team likes of their 5-techniques, and also has a work ethic that’s as Pittsburgh as it gets.
“When you come to this country and you work for minimum wage and you work hard for so long, making it big kind of seems not realistic,” Sokoli said.
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