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Frank Okam: Setting the Record Straight

In 2007 NFL Draft, the Texans used the tenth overall pick on the highly touted defensive tackle, Amobi Okoye. At nineteen, Okoye was the youngest player ever to be drafted. Still growing into his hulking body, Amobi was awash with potential. What made him a first round lock was his level of maturity and his keen intelligence. Fast forward two days short of a year and the Texans again took a defensive tackle who was a whiz in the classroom and a monster on the field. This is the story of Frank Okam.

From a five star recruit to a fifth round draft pick, Frank Okam has seen his stock rise and fall faster than a Silicon Hills start-up. He arrived in Austin with much fanfare and by all accounts, he was destined for greatness. He was built like Shaun Rodgers and supposed to put up numbers like Casey Hampton. When he wasn’t the second coming of either of them, people started to question his desire to play the game. Once branded with the scarlet letter "U" (underachiever), it became tough to convince NFL teams that he was worth a high round draft pick.

Once thought of as a blue chip prospect, he found himself falling all the way to the 151st overall pick. In total, there were thirteen defensive tackles taken before him. To examine the why, let’s take a look at Okam’s college numbers.

A three-year starter, Okam’s production dipped a bit in 2006, however it must be noted that a knee injury kept him from playing against Baylor, a team that he had success against in his career. He bounced back in 2007 and posted solid numbers in all categories. For someone with a questionable motor, Big Frank has a knack for pressuring the quarterback and knocking down passes. If he was taking plays off, it’s hard to tell by those numbers.

So what about those thirteen other players that were taken before him? Surely they had better college careers, right? Let’s take a look at the defensive tackle that was taken right before Okam, Virginia Tech Hokie Carlton Powell. In his senior year, Powell had 39 tackles and 3.5 sacks. At 295 lbs, he is not nearly the physical specimen that Frank Okam is. Score one for Okam.

Okay – lets look at a player who was taken a whole round before Okam, Texas A&M Aggie Red Bryant. He’s got a cool name and a frame similar to Okam’s, but he doesn’t have the numbers. In his senior season, Bryant had 46 tackles (only 13 solo) with one sack and one quarterback pressure. Chalk another one up for Okam.

Let’s look at round three – no, better yet, lets compare Okam to a day one draft pick. A closer look at the second round reveals no real defensive tackle taken. Trevor Laws is listed as a defensive tackle, but played defensive end his senior season skewing his tackle numbers somewhat. Now, even as a DE, he only posted four sacks to Okam’s five. Advantage Okam. So who does that leave us with, the first rounders? Let’s see how Big Frank stacks up against the mock draft prima donnas.

First, North Carolina’s Kentwan Balmer. His senior year he had 59 total tackles, which is slightly higher than Okam’s 52, but Okam trumps Balmer is every other category (tackles for loss, sacks, passes deflected). Despite Balmer’s 6’4" height, he failed to register a single pass deflection. A look at the career numbers of the two, and it isn’t even close, as Okam wins in a landslide.

That leaves us with only two players, both top ten picks. Surely they have the numbers to blow this fifth round pick out of the water – right? In USC’s Sedrick Ellis, the seventh overall pick, we find the first player who had a senior season that was statistically better across the board, but not by much. Ellis had 58 tackles (+6), 12.5 tackles for loss (+2.5), 8.5 sacks (+3.5), and 7 passes deflected (+2). As with Balmer, a comparison of their entire college career, and Okam has the edge. But based on senior seasons, I’d say Ellis takes Okam by a car-length.

Rice v Texas
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So how does Okam stack up statistically to the first defensive tackle taken in the draft, Glenn Dorsey? Better than one would expect. Now, there is no arguing Dorsey’s ability, as he amassed a gaudy 69 total tackles as an interior lineman. But like Ellis, his tackles for loss and sack totals were only slightly higher than Okam’s (+2.5 and +2 respectively). Okam’s bigger frame allowed him to knock down more passes. Of all the defensive tackles we looked at, Dorsey is the only player that has had a more productive collegian career (although, Okam did have one more TFL – ha take that Mr. Fourth Overall).

Now for the ‘yeah, but’.

"Yeah, but there is obviously something teams didn’t like." Truth be told, Big Frank lived up to his moniker and showed up heavy to the combine and did not do well in the speed and agility drills. In his conference call with the media, he said it was due to mishandling his creatine intake, which left him with excess water weight, saying that as soon as he stopped, he dropped back down to 328. Creatine could be the reason as he did put up an impressive 32 reps in the bench press, only 5 off the high mark set by Vernon Gholston and Jake Long. Nevertheless, showing up heavy to the combine helped further promulgate the perception that he wasn’t interested in playing pro ball.

So much so that Texans’ GM Rick Smith needed one more interview with Okam to make sure that his heart was in it 100%.

"We brought him in and interviewed him again, just to go through in terms of his passion of the game. What I just wanted to do when he came here to meet with us was to see how important football was to him. You can have all the talent in the world and if a guy doesn’t have it right here in his heart and have the passion to play this game - because it’s a hard game to play then you are wasting a pick. Our time here spent together, he said the right things I wanted to here. And we’re fortunate that we were able to get him at that pick."

Okam has the following to say about their meeting.

I just want to let them see my talents and my focus personally. Before you can judge someone fully you have to get to know that person, and they brought me in and really sat down and talked to me. They just wanted to see where my head was, and they knew that I’m passionate about this game. I basically told them that they are going to get a guy that can stop the run and get at the quarterback when you need that."
Nebraska v Texas
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For all the talk about Okam’s heart, he’s always been a competitor. Chip Brown’s excellent Dallas Morning News article profiles the competitive nature of Okam and his former line mate, Derek Lokey. Their fierce competition went beyond the gridiron as they pushed each other to achieve greatness in the classroom. Always looking to outdo one another, they both maintained outstanding GPAs and had aspirations of entering law school. Mack Brown had lofty praise for the both of them.

"They're best friends who compete in the classroom and on the field. They are starting to permeate leadership throughout the team. When you have two guys who are that bright, who do everything right and have played great for us and have great smiles – they are the kind of guys you build your program around."

Over their last two seasons at Texas, they anchored a defensive unit that was ranked 3rd (2006) and 10th (2007) against the run.  As seniors, they were named to several first and second team All-Big 12 lists.  They were also Academic All-Big 12 selections. 

Okam graduated with his degree in Sports Management in 3 1/2 years.  Despite the class load, Okam was a five time member of UT's Athletic Director's Honor Roll.  Not bad for an underachiever.  So while he may have not lived up to the expectations of his five-star billing, you would be hard pressed to say that he had bad go of it at the University of Texas.  Here's a quote taken from Frank's pre draft diary:

Being able to finish in three-and-a-half years and know that you’ve graduated and you can go on in life and do the things you want to do since you have a degree from a great University, it’s a great feeling. There are a few things Coach Brown told me I could do when I came to college. One was win a National Championship and one was to graduate and get a T-Ring. Having done both, I can say that my time was spent very well here

It’s obvious that he excels when challenged, both on and off the field. I think that is where heady players like Amobi Okoye and N.D. Kalu come in. Both are extremely intelligent, and they both should have a lot in common with their new teammate. Smarts aside, they share a Nigerian heritage. I have no doubts about Okam's ability to learn defensive schemes or react to the speed of the game (see Wonderlic score of 39). With Okoye,  Kalu, and Williams to help bring the rookie along, it could be the makings of a perfect storm.

In Big Frank Okam, the Texans drafted a player who anchored the defensive line for a perennial powerhouse and won a national championship.  He's proven his ability to pursue the quarterback, disrupt passes, and stop the run.  The only real knock on him is his desire, but something tells me that slipping to the fifth round gives him will give him enough motivation to prove everyone wrong. I for one, am firmly in his corner. Give 'em hell Frank, give 'em hell.