From The Big Smoke To The Big Ten: NFL Academy Prospect Timi Oke Commits To Northwestern

By Simon Carroll

Some people are born with a dream. Others happen across their calling later in life. For almost everyone, the pursuit of their ambitions can last a lifetime. NFL Academy prospect Timi Oke stumbled across his own destiny only recently, but within the span of 12 months has taken a major step in fulfilling it. He spoke to Simon Carroll about his football journey so far, the sport in this country, and his commitment to Northwestern University:

Trading Football For Football

Timi with his mother Shola. Credit: Sky Sports

The first thing you see is the smile.

Timi Oke must feel like a million dollars. Just 24 hours removed from making his commitment to Northwestern, the NFL Academy cornerback had a purple cap sat proudly on his head, the Wildcats logo emblazoned across the front. Whilst similar pieces of sports merchandise are common sights walking down any city high street, this one holds much more significance; it represents the next step in a journey that nobody knew Oke would make – not even himself. Go back 12 months, and you would find him focused on a different sport. And if it wasn’t for his mother Shola, Timi might never have embarked on a course that now has him looking to take College Football by storm:

“It all happened really quickly! But obviously I had a life before football; I went to Whitgift school in South Croydon, I was blessed to be on a scholarship there, and it’s a very good sports school. I used to play football AFTER football for a while – I still love the other version, a big Arsenal fan. And I played it for the majority of my life, maybe fifteen years. But it was my mum who came to me one day and said ‘you should try American Football’. I’m not gonna lie, my first thought was ‘why would I want to do that?’. I was still stuck on our football, not ready to try anything new. But after a while she convinced me to try it – and I haven’t looked back since.”

Go back 10, 15 years, and football was a closed shop. The minor smattering of international players at either the College or NFL level in the States was more happenstance than by design. Today, the sport is officially global. And the NFL Academy, based in Loughborough, is at the forefront of football’s thirst for talent from every corner of the world. Thanks to his mother’s vision, Oke quickly learned he had the athleticism, work ethic and skillset to thrive on the gridiron:

“I got in touch with the NFL Academy. I was blessed to be offered a place and get in – because at this point I didn’t know anything really about the sport. The details of the sport. I was aware of the basics, but I had never played the sport before – I was as new as it gets. But the Academy were amazing to me, took me in. The coaches were brilliant with me from day one – basically from scratch they took their time with me, were patient with me, and from there I’ve just been working hard for the past year. I was privileged to go to camps across America, to showcase my talent, ability, my skills. And I did really well there. I picked up my first scholarship offer from UConn, and then they just started rolling in.”

Choosing A Home

Ask any highschool football star in America, and they will tell you that scholarship offers are not taken for granted. For Oke to demonstrate in one year that he had the ability to play this sport at the highest collegiate level is a storyline usually reserved for fairytales. Six more offers came in after Connecticut opened the floodgates, with Fordham, Campbell, Lehigh, Bucknell and Bryant all declaring their interest.

But it was a Power 5 school situated on the peninsula of Lake Michigan that won the battle for Timi’s services. Northwestern University, a Big Ten school just north of Chicago, will be Oke’s home for the next four years. What was it about the Wildcats that proved too good to turn down?

“The first thing about Northwestern; it’s a school that will allow me to excel in anything I want to do. It’s a football program that is doing very well at the moment – they’re about to go to a bowl game, just hired Coach Braun permanently, who has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year. Coach Braun was a big factor in my recruitment, so for him to get the job permanently and me play under him, I’m really happy about that. When I spoke to them, you felt the ambition, the winning mentality, and things are only going to go up from there.”

If you keep up with College Football, you will know what an incredible job David Braun did at Northwestern this season, despite walking into less than favourable circumstances at Evanston. That being said, it wasn’t the only reason Oke chose to wear purple. NU is also one of the most academically prestigious universities in the states – something the astute cornerback certainly factored into his decision-making:

“Academically, it’s one of the best out there. A Northwestern degree is recognised globally. It allows me to excel in both worlds; I know that when my career is done in the NFL, if I wanna do something else I can. Financially – I want to open my own hedge fund. It’s a big goal of mine, and I know I can do that with my Northwestern degree.”

Oke thinks big, but he remains humble throughout the interview – and he also has a very grounded outlook when it comes to his football career. When asked whether he thought he would redshirt his first season in College Football or play from the get-go, Timi wasn’t ready to commit to anything:

“I haven’t spoken to Coach about that yet, mainly because I think it’s too early to tell. I’ll know a lot better what I want to achieve in my first season there when it gets closer to the time. So maybe around May, June, I’ll have a better idea about that. But when I get there, I expect to hit the ground running. To work hard off the bat and not waste any of my time there. Coach Braun told me I can become one of the best corners in the Big Ten – and I really believe that. I’m looking forward to getting started and becoming a part of the team.”

Developing His Game

Credit: ESPN

Timi Oke knows he is far from the finished product, and is ready to roll his sleeves up when he joins up with his Wildcat teammates. That being said, he wasn’t deemed a three-star recruit by 24/7 Sports by accident – Oke has serious talent. I asked him if there was a cornerback out there that he models his game on. The NFL Academy star wasn’t satisfied with adopting just one set of skills:

“I would say I’m a long corner. In terms of wingspan – I’d liken myself to Sauce Gardner. He’s very long, can make those plays. But I also play the ball with aggression and speed, and I liken that to Jalen Ramsey. He’s someone physical at the line, plays the run game very well. So I like to mould my own run game off him. And in terms of textbook coverage, there’s players like Patrick Surtain, Tre’Von Diggs who make plays week in, week out. I like to take parts from a variation of different players to make myself the best corner possible.”

Helping him mould those skills is a familiar face – and one who knows what it takes to carve out an NFL career. Oke was excited to tell me how former Cowboys,Texans and Giants DB-turned Sky Sports pundit Jason Bell has helped him take his game to the next level:

“It’s amazing. Obviously Jason Bell used to play in the NFL himself. Having that kind of person by your side to guide you is invaluable. He can give you that kind of advice that a regular coach might not necessarily be able to give you, as they might not have been there and done it like Jason has. He’s taught me things already that I will use for the rest of my career. It’s the small details that make the difference – and he really focuses on the small details, which I appreciate. And when I put all those small details together it’s going to make me an even greater player than I am now – the best player I can be.”

One Of The Trailblazers

For anyone counting, the tally of NFL Academy players who have enjoyed scholarship offers from teams in North America stands at more than forty. Timi Oke might be one of the latest in that group – and maybe one of the most talented yet – but he’s keen for more to forge the same path. Oke and his mother searched out this opportunity, and it’s something he feels others should look into – if they want it badly enough:

“For those interested in joining the Academy, I’d tell them ‘don’t be afraid to take the next step’. It can be quite nerve wracking, being away from home. But you have to really believe in your dream. You only live one life at the end of the day. You don’t want to be forty, fifty years old wishing that you’d taken that chance when you were sixteen. I don’t like regret. Take the leap of faith and apply – you never know what can happen. What’s the worst that happens? If you don’t get into the Academy, there’s loads of other routes to get to the same end goal. The game is growing over here, there’s loads of teams now, grass roots football is growing. But whatever path you go down, you’ve got to put in that work. This journey is a privilege, and you have to have pride. At the Academy, you’re representing the NFL. Stay focused, keep your head down, and stay humble – because if you get to America, you’ll be up against guys who have been playing this sport their whole lives. Show them why they have to recruit you. ”

The NFL Academy was the first step for Oke, heading to Northwestern the second. But the British DB doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. The ultimate goal is the NFL – and the Wildcats, with former cornerbacks like Greg Newsome already thriving in the league, are the perfect team to help him get there. Oke knows the traits that have got him this far will let him achieve his dream:

“Of course. I have no doubt about that. It’s another reason why I picked Northwestern – they produce players. [Cornerbacks] Coach [LaMarcus] Hicks, he’s an amazing guy – the way he breaks down the game, you know he’s someone who loves football. Like J-Bell he looks at the small details, and is someone I really want to play for. With his guidance and support, I know I can get to that next level and achieve my goal of making it to the NFL. I’ll be that next DB off the Northwestern production line.”

Remember the name: Timi Oke is about to tear the Big Ten up.

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