'I’m a unique dude:' How Foye Oluokun became the heartbeat of the resurgent Jags defense
The Jaguars are contenders. And a major reason why? This "ugly duckling." We sit down with the man in the middle of Jacksonville's defense. This Ivy League grad isn't your father's middle linebacker.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — His eyes are squinted. His lips, pursed. Foye Oluokun looks around this office room at the Jacksonville Jaguars’ facility with an inquisitive focus. There has to be an example around here… somewhere.
This is a man who has always been a big believer that everything in the world works in math. His father is an engineer and, of course, he’s a Yale grad always trying to challenge his mind. Day to day, he cannot shake one word: Why? It’s always there, always tugging at all preconceived notions. Oluokun refuses to take anything at face value. Because if you start thinking “if this, then that,” he explains, “you’re able to question a lot of things.”
Which is why his eyes are scanning this room.
“I could do anything. Give me a topic.”
Two seconds of silence prompts Oluokun to point to the water bottle between us.
“Water! Water’s not infinite. We’re made up of water. I had a question about water the other day…”
His mind wanders. His voice jukes to another topic. And it’s no surprise to see Oluokun sparring with teammates in the locker room later this day because he’s a man with opinions. Informed opinions. He plans on getting into finance one day, reading as many books on the subject as he can. But one of his favorite books recently? “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” by Jordan Ellenberg. Debate Oluokun at your own peril in this Jags locker room. He’s certain he’ll convince you of — quite literally — anything. Once, he pointed to an object that was green and told a teammate that it’s actually yellow.
Granted, he completely forgot his argument. But he knows it was full-proof.
If a teammate isn’t too sensitive politically, he’s not afraid to delve into current events.
“I’m a unique dude,” he says. “The way my mind works is unique.”
This was the name lost in the free agency frenzy last March. You may recall that everyone from Darius (now “Shaquille”) Leonard to Marlon Humphrey to every football consumer with a pulse was outright mocking the silly Jaguars for negotiating $230 million on free agents in a single day. This struck everyone as foolish pork-barrel spending. Yet another bad team finding a way to stay bad. But it’s not too soon to declare this spending spree the exact opposition: a smashing success. For starters, this is what every small-market team with a talented young quarterback must do. If not, why even show up to work? Jacksonville was dead-on correct to “here ya go” a briefcase full of 100s like Lloyd Christmas in those fur boots. Because much like Cincinnati the year prior, the Jaguars knew they possessed a potential star at quarterback.
Wide receiver Christian Kirk is justifying his scrutinized deal, but the best bang for the Jags’ buck has been the man in the middle of this refurbished defense: Oluokun. He doesn’t sound like any of those cannibalistic defensive players that willed the Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game in 2017. That “Sacksonville” unit was a ruthless bunch straight out of the 70s. Oluokun is more complex. He’s a violent player in his own right — his 192 tackles led the entire NFL last season — but intimidation isn’t his game.
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Yes, he’s a math lover. From high school to college, he thoroughly enjoyed figuring out handwritten equations because it’s all a “big puzzle” in his mind. The longer those puzzles get, the more satisfying the answer. He takes it one step further: All of life, Oluokun adds, is an equation.
His parents emigrated to America from Nigeria. Education was the emphasis over athletics.
When it came to athletics, though, he played everything. Oluokun was an even better soccer and basketball player growing up.
He didn’t engage in the LeBron-Kobe debate like everyone else. “Too mainstream,” he says. His favorite player was Rajon Rondo because he could relate to Rondo.
He has always felt different than his peers. That’s why he even created his own “Team Ugly Gang” clothing line. Back in school, two kids on his team (“who were not the best looking,” he assures) called him ugly. And he embraced the story of the ugly duckling. He didn’t look like the kids on the same soccer field. Then, when he went to private school, he didn’t act like the kids on his basketball teams. Now in the NFL, he’s clearly a different cat with this Ivy League background. Citing a song, that’s what he says U.G.L.Y. stands for to him: “U Got to Love Yourself.”
“If you think about it, ugly things have happened to me my whole life,” Oluokun says. “But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You are who you are. I show up how I show up — if you like that you do, if you don’t you don’t. I’ve really always been the oddball.”
“Your specialty — whatever you bring to the table — let that shine.”
His specialty is running the air traffic control for a defense on the rise. These Jaguars are ready to win the AFC South again.
Edge rushers Josh Allen and Travon Walker are the high picks who must terrorize quarterbacks up front.
Foye Oluokun, pronounced Oh-Lew-Oh-Con, is this unit’s leader.
There’s no question: He is unique.
Start in St. Louis. With soccer. Oluokun was destined to star in shin pads, not shoulder pads on a dominant summer team that traveled all over the country. At one point, his club was ranked third in the nation and he fully expected to play college soccer in the future. He dabbled in every position but was at his best shutting down opposing players at midfield and defense. Down in Texas, he was told to face-guard one player who he recalls as “the talk of the town.” His team won, 1-0, on a penalty kick.
The key to marking players up, he explains, is to follow the ball. Not a player’s body movement. He also had a knack for winning 50-50 balls that went airborne, heading it upfield. Hardly the upbringing of Nitschke and Butkus and Lambert. He played baseball in the spring and basketball was undoubtedly his first love. Oluokun competed on a national team in this sport as well. A few schools — Dayton, Santa Clara — even hit him up on Facebook after he shined on an Adidas travel team. Of course, he was 6 foot 1 in high school. Not idea for a shooting guard.
Football was his ticket.
His parents didn’t know much about football. But around fourth or fifth grade, Oluokun gave it a whirl. He was always good in recess, and figured why not? His buddy’s father was starting a team and explained the game to his Dad. Through middle school, Oluokun was still playing soccer but started to get burnt out. More of his friends played football so the shift felt natural. Especially when he got into trouble at one of his national soccer camps. He stayed up past curfew watching TV, a teammate tattle-told on him and… yeah. That was enough of soccer. “That’s my final straw,” he told himself. “These kids aren’t for me.” He’d stick with football into ninth grade.
At John Burroughs High School, he was teammates (and close friends) with Ezekiel Elliott.
The tag team had one class together, but that was it. Teachers wouldn’t allow it after this.
On the field, their coach was former NFL QB Gus Frerotte and even though the two pals were ultra-competitive, Elliott was clearly the superior prospect. He generated the most college hype, earning a scholarship to Ohio State. Oluokun could’ve played either basketball or football at Yale. As a math guy, he realized there were 22 people on a football field vs. 10 on the hardwood. He didn’t want to ride the pine for two seasons in basketball — even though this was his No. 1 love — so football it was. Simple as that.
He wasn’t even thinking about the pros.
Off to Yale he went. As a cornerback.
Academically, he was an Economics major. He likes Micro more than Macro because it’s math-based. He gets lost in the minutiae.
Athletically, he gained confidence in Practice No. 1, Team Period No. 1 by picking off the team’s quarterback, Morgan Roberts. As he remembers, Roberts had just transferred in from Clemson and was trying to prove himself. Oluokun ended up making his life hell all camp long, pick after pick after pick and… “Boom!” The QB drilled Oluokun, inciting an all-out brawl.
“I did a spin move on a lineman,” he says. “So I come off this spin move, and boom! Blasts me! It was a good hit. I didn’t really mind. I like that competitiveness.”
From corner, he moved to safety, and the junior year started well. Against Colgate, Oluokun was a beast: Eight tackles, two blocked field goals, a pass break-up and… one broken thumb. He didn’t even know he broke it in real time and kept playing. After the game, that thumb blew up, he needed surgery and — after missing only one game — Oluokun returned with a club over his hand. Yale coaches thought it’d be a good idea to get him some snaps vs. Lehigh ahead of league play.
The second play of the game, Oluokun blitzed off the edge to rush the QB and popped his pectoral muscle. The tendon ripped off. His season was over.
Looking back? It was a blessing. For starters, Oluokun was able to focus on his ridiculously demanding Yale course load. And the next football season was admittedly “abysmal.” Yale went 3-7. Thus, he knows he’s lucky that extra redshirt season was in his back pocket. No scouts in the NFL would’ve given a damn about him if that was his last showing at Yale. Funny-sounding DB-LB tweeners from bad Ivy League teams tend to go undetected. And his final season, in 2017, Yale won the Ivy League. He had 50 tackles (nine for loss) with a pick and three sacks. It helped that he had a lot of classes at Yale already banked — Oluokun only had to take three that semester, which meant he could pour himself into the sport. Seeing Elliott go fourth overall to the Dallas Cowboys in ’16 gave him hope. Elliott starred instantly and he felt his athleticism was right on par. “I should have a role,” Oluokun told himself. “There’s no way — if I put my mind to it — I can’t try.” Dad was skeptical. He always viewed sports as a recreational activity solely for character development.
Then, everything fell into place. Quickly.
The NFL realized his style was unique.
Originally, Oluokun was going to stay at Yale to train ahead of the draft. That way, he could find an internship and keep his options open in case football didn’t pan out. Frerotte told him this was dead wrong. He advised Oluokun to put “all your eggs in one basket.” To go all out. The former NFL QB linked him up with a trainer in Colorado, Loren Landow, who’s now the head strength coach for the Denver Broncos. Landow had worked with Christian McCaffrey for ages — Oluokun heard Landow was the No. 1 reason McCaffrey ran the way he did — so the choice was easy.
Since Yale didn’t even have one, Oluokun tested at Fordham’s pro day. He has Chase Edmonds to thank. Fordham’s record-setting back — who we profiled at Go Long — didn’t need to test at his pro day after lighting up the Combine. “So they were over there waiting around,” Oluokun recalls, “Who’s going to pop? And I blow out my testing. Now, all of a sudden, everybody is watching me.”
Some teams viewed him as an ideal linebacker if he could just add a few pounds. Other teams said he didn’t “move” like a linebacker, which offended him. “Well. I can learn if you teach me,” Oluokun remembers thinking. “Some guys don’t want to teach. So I was offended by that. Sorry I move like a defensive back.” Oddly enough, Oluokun became the same hybrid threat he pretended to be on Madden. On the video game, for years, he’d take a defensive back and creep him into the box to blitz and roam around. As if creating a new position entirely.
He never expected to get drafted — not when Yale’s stud running back, Tyler Varga, went ignored — but the Atlanta Falcons rolled the dice on Oluokun 200th overall in 2018. It didn’t take long for the linebacker to believe in himself. The first player he tackled was a playmaker he always looked up to: 5-foot-6 dynamo Darren Sproles. On a return, Sproles cut inside of a block and Oluokun swam over the top. That preseason, he also blasted Leonard Fournette for a one-yard gain. For a kid from Yale to drive this beast from LSU, this cult hero, backward at the point of attack? I can do anything, he told himself. “That gave me all the confidence I needed,” he adds. That same year, he tackled The Adrian Peterson.
Play to play, he’s able to apply his math brain to the linebacker position. Oluokun calibrates the formation with a “1… 2… 3” count in his head that helps him account for offensive weapons in real time.
As an Ivy League grad, it’s fair to wonder if Oluokun is OK throwing his brain into harm’s way for a living. (Especially after last night’s scary scene in Cincinnati.) He’d know better than anyone about the fallacy of any helmet actually protecting you against concussions. The brain’s always jiggling within the skull upon contact. Oluokun knows there’s an effect but doesn’t want to scare himself. Like many other players, he says he looks at the big picture and asks himself one question: “Is it worth it?” The answer’s always a resounding yes. His family didn’t have much growing up in Normandy, 15 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis. While their neighborhood wasn’t too dangerous, if you traveled across the fence? It was rough. Ferguson, he notes, is two miles north.
Oluokun understood how fortunate he was to possess such football talent.
“Am I going to suffer later down the line? Maybe. I might,” he says. “I know people who’ve hit their head more than me and they seem like they’re functioning. So maybe I’ll have stuff. I don’t know.”
There’s also his parents’ perspective. They were raised on a farm in Nigeria. Dad was able to balance schooling with farm duties, so Oluokun didn’t think he could make any excuses for himself.
Both parents came to America to afford him opportunities just like this. He has a gift. He must maximize it.
“If they could do what they did to get here — and get us to ground zero — then we have it better than a lot of people in this world. Why not keep advancing that?”
He always maintained a Rajon Rondo-like bite to his game, too. His family didn’t have cable growing up but CBS aired big games and Kentucky vs. Louisville made its way onto a national broadcast in the early 2000s. Oluokun liked the color blue over the red, became a diehard fan and Rondo ascended a few years later. As the surly point guard moved on to the Boston Celtics, Oluokun loved how he worked his way up the depth chart to become the trigger man for the team’s Big 3 and single-handedly revitalize Ray Allen’s career. Rondo was averaging triple-doubles, he adds, long before Russell Westbrook was hunting for them.
Rondo didn’t try to be anybody else as a player or as a person.
Yeah, he butted heads with coaches and teammates. But he couldn’t care less about the NBA’s innate glitz. Watching Rondo’s interviews on YouTube, Oluokun loved his blunt nature.
“He is who he is,” Oluokun says. “If you tried him, he wasn’t going to change up his attitude for people.”
It didn’t take long for Oluokun to follow the same arc.
This rise has gone mostly unnoticed by the general public since Atlanta has been so bad. But in addition to being such a tackle hound, Oluokun is a playmaker. In 2020, he forced three fumbles in the same game, jarring the ball loose from Zeke’s grasp. And he picked off Patrick Mahomes. And, in 2021, he picked off Josh Allen. The lack of buzz does get annoying. He often wonders why people “discredit” his game, but says that it’s always motivation. Several linebackers drafted above Oluokun have busted out. The fact that he didn’t play in a major conference and that he hasn’t won in the pros are obvious reasons he’s still such a mystery.
Even though he wasn’t even a Falcon until 2018 — a full two seasons after 28-3 — that Super Bowl loss still reeked through the pores of the fan base.
“That’s all you hear about,” he says. “I hope the fans drop that for Atlanta. They’re a new team with a new coach. Any time things start going back, it’s ‘We haven’t been good since…’ People just love to hate down there. But here’s a new opportunity. Once we start putting things together, things will write themselves. I just want to win. That’s first and foremost. If you want to consider me with the upper-echelon? That’s the respect level I play for. As long as we win, things will happen themselves.”
The Jags believed. They signed Oluokun to a three-year, $45 million contract.
Yet a different number is on Oluokun’s mind. On the eve of the 2022 season, he changed his uniform number from No. 54 to No. 23 to tap into his inner MJ. He rocked 23 growing up because — as much as he liked Rondo — he also could not get enough of Michael Jordan’s mentality. He’d watch full games of Jordan on ESPN Classic and was “enamored” with his attitude.
“If somebody scores on him,” Oluokun says, “you can see the anger in his eye. Even if you’re joking with him, he doesn’t take it lightly. He’ll joke back. But he’s like, ‘I’ve got to get you back.’ I always try to have that competitive fire — that competitive spirit — in me.”
That’s what this defense needs, of course. Longtime defensive coach Bob Sutton — the team’s senior defensive assistant — views Oluokun as such a force. He first met Oluokun when he was the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. This unknown from Yale was one of the team’s 30 in-house visits. Sutton then coached Oluokun in Atlanta 2019 and 2020 before making the move to Jacksonville himself in ’21. He describes the linebacker as someone who cares about nothing but winning. He’s constantly asking questions about the defense: “Are you sure you want to do it like that?” he’ll press Sutton and the staff.
In no time, Oluokun was the voice of this reworked defense. He's been taking players throughout the defense under his wing, showing them exactly how he studies.
Six months after becoming a Jag, he was elected a captain.
“He has very natural leadership skills,” Sutton says. “People move towards him.
“When you step on that pedestal and say, ‘I’m going to be one of the leaders,’ you don’t get to step back down from the pedestal. Once you declare yourself here, that’s it. So, guess what? Everything you do is being observed by those who you’re trying to lead. He’s definitely an out-front guy. There are two kinds of leadership: Push or Pull. The only way to pull is to be out front. He’s going to demonstrate. Anything he’s asking you to do, he’s already been doing. That part I know. It’s not hot air coming out. Or ‘leadership speak.’”
Sutton doesn’t think it’s long before everyone’s mentioning Foye Oluokun right there with the best linebackers in football. Mainly because he doesn’t see a weakness in his game. No. 23 both defends the run and can cover just about anyone down the field. He’s the one making sure everyone up front is lined up — crucial through a nine-, 10-, 11-play drive. Not many defenses are armed with a player who can “self-correct” to this degree.
“He knows when he did something wrong: ‘I should’ve played it like this,’” says Sutton, snapping his fingers. “And he knows almost instantly. On defense — if it’s not going good — it doesn’t end well. It’s not like offense where you punt, go over to the sideline and you get it fixed. On defense, you end up blocking an extra point. There’s no alternative if you don’t stop them that’s going to turn out good. But he has that capability. He can analyze. He has great emotion and great energy.
“There’s no task that’s too big for him. It’s ‘We need to get this squared away. We need to get this done. He has a lot of that. He understands the opposing players. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. He’s a wise individual.”
In terms of sheer preparation, Oluokun reminds Sutton of a linebacker he coached with the New York Jets: Jonathan Vilma. He sees the same serious disposition. In Year 5, this ‘backer is actually a grizzled vet on this young Jags defense.
Inside the Jaguars locker room, you’ll hear Oluokun trade barbs most with the linebacker right next to him: Shaquille Quarterman. They come from very different places. Quarterman grew up in Florida, attended “The U” and looked up to Jon Beason as a mentor. He describes Oluokun as a quintessential nerd who unapologetically expresses himself in a “very, very Ivy League” manner. Quarterman thought this whole ugly duckling branding was a joke initially but grew to see why it worked so perfect for his friend. He even bought a hoodie for himself.
“He’s someone you’re glad is on the same team as you,” Quarterman says. “He embodies everything a top linebacker should in this league. … He’s very proud of his trials because they all shaped him. I would definitely say the path he took — to get into the league — he felt like he was very looked over.”
Within the Jaguars defense, Oluokun must be the dependable one.
He’s the one looking everyone in the eyes before every play.
“A lot comes with that,” Quarterman says. “I can see why we all trust him. We definitely trust him.”
Nor is Quarterman surprised Oluokun is a Rondo fanatic.
“He’s not following any waves.”
That’s what the Jaguars need to become a winner, of course. A new approach. They haven’t made the playoffs in 13 of the last 14 seasons.
So far, so good.
The Jaguars throttled Indianapolis 24-0 before then flying across the country to beat up on the Los Angeles Chargers 38-10. It’s time to take this team seriously. The parallels to last season’s AFC champion are eerie. The Cincinnati Bengals spent millions upon millions in free agency with the idea that their Heisman Trophy-winning, No. 1 overall pick of a quarterback would elevate into superstardom. Joe Burrow did and the Bengals were one blocked Aaron Donald away from winning it all. Before the Jags even play a game this season, Oluokun doesn’t flinch when asked if these Jaguars can be those Bengals.
He looks around the locker room. All of the ingredients are in place.
“All of the new faces came here to win,” Oluokun says. “Nobody came here with the long intent. Everybody came here to start something new. We’re trying to go out there and prove that we can do it together.”
He doesn’t want Jacksonville to over-rely on the offense, either. He sees this young defense shocking the football world. That was the case in 2017. Nobody saw that unit taking the NFL by storm… so why not this one?
Yeah, yeah. One game at a time, etc, etc. Once he gets all necessary clichés out of the way, Foye Oluokun ramps it up a notch. If the Jaguars do win enough games to make the playoffs?
“We’re going to be dangerous,” he says.
We should listen. Nobody on this side of the ball has a louder say.