Mayan Ahanotu: Path To The NFL Draft

By Simon Carroll

Football is a sport passed down from generation to generation. Family names such as Manning, Winslow, Shanahan and Matthews have seen sons follow in their fathers footsteps, hoping to emulate their exploits on the gridiron.

Mayan Ahanotu was born into one such family, but is ready to create his own legacy in the league. The former Minnesota and Rutgers defensive lineman sits down with Simon Carroll to discuss his path to the NFL Draft:

Buccaneer Born & Bred

As he prepares for an NFL career, Mayan Ahanotu has his eyes wide open. The son of Chidi Ahanotu, a former NFL defensive lineman, his young life was exposed to the league and everything that came with it from an early age. Inevitably, it would lead to Mayan finding a love for the game that was equally as strong as his father’s was:

“I was born and raised in Tampa Bay. Me and my two brothers, mom and dad, and football has always been a major part of the family. How could it not be! My dad played 12 years in the league, and I just remember watching the games on TV as a toddler with a football in my hands. I’d watch him play, come home all banged up, and see the game in all it’s glory up close and personal. There’s a lot of things I wanted to do in my life, but I chose football very quickly. I’ve had that fire in my heart for as long as I can remember.”

Chidi Ahanotu has set a high standard for his son to match. A twelve-year veteran, Chidi had more than 400 tackles in his NFL career along with 46 sacks. His 34.5 sacks with the Bucs have him ranked fifth in franchise history – and he was voted one of the top 100 players ever to wear a Tampa Bay uniform. Intimidated? Not a chance – Mayan was inspired:

“As a kid, I was like every other, idolizing players on the field. To have one of them be your father was so crazy, coming home at the end of the day. He was doing what all my friends dreamed of, and I was no different. I wanted to be him, to play that sport, to be a football star. He no doubt inspired thousands of kids to play football, and I was one of them. It was a real blessing to be in that situation.”

Whilst his dad starred in the NFL, Mayan Ahanotu was busy making his early forays into sports himself. Playing for the other Buccaneers in the city – Berkeley Prep – Ahanotu turned heads with production on both offense and defense:

“In high school I played both basketball and football. I really went to Berkeley Prep because they allowed me to play two sports, whereas other schools wanted me to be a one-sport athlete. So I played power forward for the Buccaneers on the court, and both sides of the ball for them on the gridiron. I had a great time there playing football for Coach Dominick Ciao, and learnt a whole bunch of lessons through him – how to be a man, handle my business, and show it all through the sport. To be a consistent leader on and off the field, it was a privilege to play for him. At high school, I was an offensive lineman for like two drives every game! I played guard, defensive tackle, defensive end and a little bit of tight end as a freshman too.”

Heading North: Way North

Upon meeting the gigantic Mayan Ahanotu, it’s clear that he has learned how to be humble and respectful from his parents as well as the art of playing defensive lineman. Appreciative of his coaches at Berkeley Prep, he was keen to praise Coach Ciao for the job he had done at the school, noting the team finally got a state championship last year. But back in 2017, Ahanotu left school as a hulking 6’4”, 250lb behemoth. That led to an incredible 32 scholarship offers, but it was one school 23 hours north of Tampa that proved to be the right place for him to begin his college career: 

“I literally committed to Minnesota my junior year of high school. I didn’t want to deal with the recruiting process my senior year. I was too focused on winning. But my main priority was which teams were recruiting me the hardest. I had a lot of big offers that I could have gone with, but Minnesota was hitting me up every single day, checking in on me, and seeing how I was. That love was important to me, and if they showed that to me I would show it back. I took a visit there and there was nothing I could point to that was wrong with it, couldn’t find any negatives. Apart from the cold – but I went up there in the summertime! They got me there! But I was content with the decision, and ended up having two great years there. I met my girlfriend there too – there’s nothing I would change.”

I ask Ahanotu how much PJ Fleck was a factor in his decision to become a Golden Gopher. Intense and cut from a different cloth, Fleck has a reputation for inspiring some and irritating others, but nobody can question his success at Minnesota. Ahanotu was firmly in the ‘inspired’ camp, grateful for a coach that was demanding and forthright:

“PJ Fleck, he’s a motivational guy. Very culture driven, someone who won’t drop the standard for anybody. He has a whole bunch of energy! And if you can’t match it, you’re gonna be in trouble.”

With Chidi once wearing the famous Berkeley Blue of the Cal Golden Bears, I ask just how hard they pushed for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. If anything, we’re learning quickly that Mayan Ahanotu is very much his own man, and the maker of his own destiny:

“Cal did try and get me. I went to a camp there my sophomore year when I was visiting family. I showed what I could do, and heaping back to Tampa they quickly gave me a call and made me an offer. So we went out again and had an official visit, and it was a great experience. My dad was with me, and obviously as an alumni there it was pretty special being in the place where he played. But ultimately, Minnesota was the right fit for me.”

Moving On From Minnesota

Heading to the frozen north in 2018, Mayan Ahanotu had dreams of setting the Big Ten on fire. But like many confident high school stars, the reality was a little different from the vision portrayed during recruitment. Ahanotu was familiar with the value of hard work and persistence, and he leaned on that to help him through the adversity of limited playing time at Minnesota:

“I redshirted in 2018, but there was a rule at the time where you could play up to four games and still not lose a season of eligibility. I played in two games, but obviously I wanted more. The whole reason I came to Minnesota was, they sold me on ‘you’re gonna come in and immediately make plays’, and I kinda got swept up into that. But once you get onto campus, you immediately realize it’s gonna take a whole lotta work before you can achieve that. I started out on the scout team, ended up being the scout team defensive MVP for that year. So my role in year one was all about getting the guys ready. Obviously I made the starting offensive linemen mad because I would never turn my motor off! I just kept working, it was all I knew. But I knew it would help the guys win, so I just kept practicing as hard as I could.”

Unfortunately for Ahanotu, his dogged work ethic and commitment proved to be in vain as opportunity once again eluded him in year two. The answer? Just keep working:

“That second year, I was hoping to get into that rotation, was working my but off to achieve that. But then a transfer defensive tackle came in, ended up beating me out, and from there I just tried to keep my head down and work even more. It felt like an incredibly long season, and I really didn’t get any plays – I was just sitting there waiting for an opportunity that never came. It got to a point where I was thinking it just wasn’t going to work out in Minnesota.”

The realization that it might be time to look for pastures new encouraged Ahanotu to assess his options. A rather exciting development led to him continuing his college career in the Big Ten – 1,400 miles East in New Jersey:

“2020, Covid hit. That, plus my situation at Minnesota, it felt like it was time for a fresh start. So I bet on myself and jumped in the transfer portal. Greg Schiano had just been re-hired over at Rutgers, and it wasn’t long before he gave me a call. And I had a history with Coach Schiano dating back to my time at Berkeley Prep – he was at Tampa with the Bucs at the time, and all three of his sons went to the same school as me. They were on the football team and we were great friends. When Coach got fired by Tampa Bay, he began coming to the practices and helping out, scheming stuff up for us for the Friday games. It was an awesome experience and a privilege to build up a relationship with a coach with a pedigree like that. I was 14, 15, getting coached by an NFL coach! So when he was one of the first calls I got, it was an absolute no-brainer for me.”

Instant Impact

Mayan Ahanotu would go on to have four productive years at Rutgers, making a mockery of his delayed entry to college football. He arrived in New Brunswick with just one tackle to his name, and left as one of the most respected players on the roster. Making an immediate impact with the Scarlet Knights, Ahanotu credits a change of philosophy and a determination to repay the faith shown in him:

“Once I hit that transfer portal I knew I had to come in with a different mindset. I was about to have a fresh start, a new platform, and I had to run with it. The scheme was the same on defense, the coaches believed in me, and of course the connection with Coach Schiano was there. The love I have for that coach in particular made me work even harder for him – double down on everything and help him and Rutgers football as much as I could.”

Despite arriving in the COVID season, Ahanotu was able to help the team immediately, something he credits to the culture Greg Schiano was instilling in his first season back at Rutgers. This is a team built on grit and effort, and those non-negotiables were brought to everything – both on and off the field:

“Covid was crazy. I was just trying to finally kickstart my career, but you couldn’t get into any rhythm! It was on again, off again, but all you could do through it all was keep working. Coach Schiano, he was straight with us, told us he didn’t know if there would be any football – but we were gonna prepare as best we could either way. So that’s what we did, with all the masks on and everything, we just worked our tails off. Another long season, but I needed it to be honest – I needed that growth. That year was something of a breakout season for me – it showed me how much I loved the game of football. Some players opted out, there was so much uncertainty – but to be able to push through all that stuff and still play the season, it really told me a lot about myself and this team.”

Ahanotu’s rise to personal prominence coincided with some serious strides being made at Rutgers. With Schiano back at the helm, the team improved year on year. Ahanotu pinpoints exactly where both he and the program were able to succeed:

“Coach Schiano is demanding. Much like Coach Fleck, he puts the standard out there, and you either hit it or you’re not lasting very long. That’s how we win games at Rutgers – with our culture, effort, and violence that we play with. My role ended up being a leader of the defensive line and a leader on the defense as a whole. I ultimately became a two-time captain and earned the respect of my teammates. But in terms of scheme, I was there to clog up the run gaps and create as much disruption against the pass as possible. That allowed the defense to be dominant. I’d played mostly 3-technique at Minnesota, but I kicked more inside to nose at Rutgers. I know I can do both – it’s about putting the work in, leading by example, and refusing to be beaten.”

Growth On And Off The Field

Quiet and respectful but with a steely intensity, it’s clear to see that Mayan Ahanotu is leadership material. Being named a captain for his final two years at Rutgers is a testament to that. As Mayan attests, it’s been a journey of growth in this regard:

“I’ve always had that leadership ability in me. When I was at high school I became leader of the football team my senior year, and I didn’t like the way I led. I felt like I didn’t know how, or have the tools honestly to give me and my teammates the best opportunity to win games. I was just doing what I thought a good leader would do. Fast forward to now, and all the mentoring and advice I’ve received from all the coaches I’ve worked with along the way, it matured me more. I knew if I was going to be a true leader, I had to do it a little bit differently. I learned about my teammates more, found out ways to push buttons and pick at them. I learned the right moments, when to let it loose or turn it up a notch. That was the difference, how I managed to impact the team the most.”

Ahanotu brings that level of dedication to everything he does, and academics and off-the-field work is no different. In 2022 he was named on the Wuerffel Trophy Watchlist, in 2023 he was a semifinalist for the William Campbell Trophy, and throughout his career was named an Academic All-Big Ten four times. I’m quickly learning that – whatever it is – when it comes to this impressive young man, there are no shortcuts:

“Ever since I stepped foot on campus – even at high school – it’s always been preached to me that how you do anything is how you do everything. So, if you’re watching film, you better be watching it as hard as you can! If you’re hitting the books, go all the way with it! So that was just instilled in me from a young age, and it’s now second nature to me – it’s just how I operate. Give everything 100%, and let it fall as it may. Nothing is guaranteed, so if you work as hard as you can at it, you’re giving yourself the best chance when the chips fall. I guarantee you’re going to get something good at some point, at something. A little reward here and there, and they all add up. On the field and in the classroom I’ve lived that belief – and it’s the same commitment to everything I’ll bring to the NFL.”

Ahanotu finished his Rutgers career with a litany of awards for his character, work ethic and devotion to the team. He tells me his family is proud of these achievements, but he really wasn’t able to appreciate the accolades he received up in New Jersey until recently, when it was all over and he could take a step back and see the full picture of the legacy he leaves behind. On the field, the turnaround for Rutgers football was also complete, with 2023 giving the Scarlet Knights their first winning season in ten years:

“Every year we do these exit interviews, where you sit down with your coaches and they ask you how you feel the season went, what you could have done better, and how you can improve. And, ahead of my final year, I sat down with my defensive line coach Marquise Watson. Now we’re really close, and he tells me straight how it is. And he told me we had an opportunity to do something really great as a team, that if we attacked the offseason correctly, we could do special things. So we wrote all the things down we needed to focus on, and I really committed to improving those things. And the results speak for themselves – we ended up winning seven games, and won a bowl game for the first time in a decade. We reaped the benefits of our hard work.”

Getting On The NFL Radar

As Mayan Ahanotu now moves his focus onto an NFL career of his own, we once again talk about his father. After his own time in the league, Chidi has built something of an agent empire, representing the likes of Serena Williams and Usain Bolt. Currently focusing on his involvement with the NFLPA Icon Awards, Ahanotu won’t be representing his son through the draft process – another example of how Mayan is intent on forging his own path. Instead, he’s back home and preparing for his pro day on March 28th:

“I’m training with Athlete Innovations in Tampa right now. Working with Cliff Smith – it’s been awesome! It’s definitely way different than actually playing football because you’re learning totally different techniques and little details. It’s all about getting those times right in the drills and performing well in front of the scouts. But I’m having fun out here for sure!”

Ahanotu is fully aware of the magnitude of the task ahead. Draft prospects aren’t just battling against the odds – 1.6% of college football players make it to the NFL – they’re also battling perception. For Mayan, his pro day is one final opportunity to disprove some myths about his game:

“I’m an athlete. I feel like some people might want to say otherwise, but I can’t wait to showcase my movement skills and talents I’ve been working on. I’m gonna prove a lot of people wrong at my pro day. I just wanna leave everything out there that day. It’s my last big interview before the draft comes up so I just wanna make a big statement and show them that I’m a fierce competitor, a natural leader, and I have the power and speed to play this game.”

Ahanotu has already had such an opportunity to show what he can do, having been invited to one of the season’s all-star games that fill the calendar at this time of year. The short trip to Orlando was no vacation though – Mayan was exposed to the kind of people that hold his fate in their hands:

“I went to the Tropical Bowl at the beginning of this whole entire process. I had an opportunity to practice in front of scouts, and then sit down with a few teams. I got the chance to speak to the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, and it gives you an idea of how you’re perceived in NFL circles. It was an amazing experience, just to know that I’m really just one step away from achieving my goal – and once I get there man it’s like a whole new thing. I gotta start from scratch and build it all up again. But you know me – I live for that. I’m just excited for what’s ahead.”

Following In His Father's Footsteps

As the interview draws towards its end, I’m keen to get an understanding of how Mayan Ahanotu sees himself operating at the next level. Having played in numerous spots across the defensive line since his days at Berkeley Prep, he’s had experience in a variety of positions. Ahanotu is confident that versatility will translate to the pro game, whilst acknowledging the role he’s become most accustomed to:

“I watch NFL football and it makes me confident. I can play a one or two gap scheme in a 4-3 defense to be honest. I can play a three technique all the way to a shade, even inside the tackles as a 4-tech or 4i. I’ve been moved around a bit through my football journey, so a lot of these different alignments I’ve seen before. Whatever a team needs me to do, I’ve got confidence I’m capable of doing it. Sure, I’m comfortable in a 4 man front, one-gap scheme, but I’ve got that versatility.”

I suggest the idea of following in his father’s footsteps and playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ahanotu admits it would be special to be a hometown hero, but is determined to make his mark regardless of the family name – in any city that wants him:

“Man that would be crazy! It would be a dream for sure, just to come back home, and perform in front of my family – it would be a real blessing. And they’ve got a history of amazing defensive tackles, it would be an honor to put my name amongst them! But honestly, any team that gives me that call, I’ll be just as proud to put their helmet on too. If they show faith in me, they’re gonna get everything I have back.”

On that point, there is no doubt – Ahanotu will leave nothing in the tank when it comes to establishing a professional football career. It’s the mindset he’s rolled with ever since he was a young boy watching his father play at Raymond James Stadium, and when it comes to draft weekend he admits it could get emotional:

“I’m gonna get all my family together, watch the draft go by and have my phone ready. I’m just gonna be praying to God it rings! But if it does, it would mean everything. Just to get that opportunity, it would feel like all the hard work that I’ve been putting in – the whole village that’s been supporting me and pouring into me, it’s like we’re all one. We finally made it to that point, becoming a professional athlete and playing at the highest level. I’m so close right now I can feel it, and it just makes me work even harder for it. I might cry, I don’t know what emotions I’ll feel! But I know the work is just beginning. It doesn’t matter how you get in, it’s about staying in once you do. And I’m determined to stay in as long as I can.”

Mock Draft





A huge thank you to Mayan for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchdown wishes him well in his future career.