It takes only a small twist of fate in the game of football to have the spotlight suddenly shine on you, and that he where the 20-year-old rookie Chukwuma Okorafor finds himself after fellow offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins suffered a torn quad that will end his 2018 season well before it begins.
The two linemen were expected to compete with one another this offseason to take over the swing tackle role that was vacated by Chris Hubbard after he signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Hubbard started and played in quite a few games over the past two seasons.
The Steelers added Okorafor out of Western Michigan in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but they did so seemingly even themselves under the impression that he is in need of refinement. It’s not at all clear that he will be ready to serve as that swing tackle by the time the regular season starts. But he will be in an accelerated learning environment from now until then to find out.
“Our new guy is going to have to step up and show us what he’s capable of”, Gilbert told reporters during OTAs after Hawkins’ injury. “He’s been showing a lot of promise out here. He just has to keep building, knowing he’s a play away from being that guy”.
For those who might not be aware, Okorafor has only been playing along the offensive line for going on six seasons now. He started all three seasons in college, including the final two seasons at left tackle, but he only moved to the line during his junior year in college. He was previously a kicker and punter, because that was what was most familiar to him as a soccer player growing up in Africa.
“That’s what we drafted him for”, the starting right tackle continued. “He has all the pedigree, athletic ability, looks great. He has to just keep coming along and doing what we ask him to do, keep quiet and just come into work every day. I like his attitude”.
Ramon Foster, the veteran of the offensive line heading into his 10th season, said that he spoke to Okorafor about his role potentially changing after Hawkins went down. “’The physical part will take care of itself’”, he told the rookie. “’The mental part now is where you have to start stepping up. That mental part bleeds into your physicality’”.
And the team’s other tackle, Alejandro Villanueva, is a perfect example of that. He was thrown into the fire a bit before he was ready as well, but the more he learned and the more comfortable he got through live fire, the more physical he became in his play.
For what it’s worth, Foster said that the rookie “had a learning day” going up against T.J. Watt, of whom Villanueva told reporters last year that it was “annoying” to go up against because he was relentless. Watt might not be a finished product, but getting reps against him should certainly push Okorafor to learn quickly.