The expectation by many is that Chukwuma Okorafor will be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting left tackle this season, replacing the departed Alejandro Villanueva. But to Okorafor, he’s ready for anything. Left or right side. In a Thursday Zoom call, he told reporters he hasn’t been told where he’ll be lining up this year.
“Honestly, I’m just here to do everything I’m being told,” Okorafor told reporters. “If it’s play left tackle, play right tackle. I’ve done both….so I’ll just see how it plays out in training camp.”
He comes into 2021 with experience at both slots. In college at Western Michigan, he served as their left tackle and played so well that teammate Taylor Moton, enjoying a successful career with the Carolina Panthers, was pushed to the right side. Okorafor served as a swing tackle his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, logging time at both tackle spots. Last year, he started 15 games at right tackle after Zach Banner suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the Week One opener against the New York Giants.
While Okorafor is preparing for anything, he made it known that he and Banner are no longer competing for the same spot the way they did a year ago with Banner narrowly edging Okorafor out.
“I feel like it’s still somewhat the same,” he said of the competition between the two. “Obviously now he’s playing right. I’m playing left.”
And that’s the most likely way things play out for Week One. Banner is more comfortable on the right side, a RT at USC and had worked there last season before his injury, while Okorafor played on the blindside in college and is probably more natural on that side. Plus, with Pittsburgh being a right-handed running team, it’s smarter to have a better run blocker like Banner at right tackle and keep Okorafor on the left side. Overall play strength and run blocking have been two of Okorafor’s weaknesses.
In the regular season opener, the Steelers’ starting five should look like this. Okorafor-Dotson-Finney/Green-DeCastro-Banner.
For Okorafor, regardless of where he lines up, his job description remains the same.
“There isn’t any more pressure if it’s playing left tackle, left guard or center. It’s still having to block for Ben or if it’s Najee or Benny or whoever is running the ball. As far as left side, right side, center, it doesn’t really mean much to me. It’s mostly about if it’s Ben playing or whoever is playing, it’s about blocking well for them.”