By Gabriel Stovall
RIVERDALE, Ga. — Riverdale’s Chidi Okonya is the latest Southern Crescent football athlete to pledge his services to Tennessee.
In a brief ceremony following Riverdale’s spring game, Okonya made public the decision to become the 10th commit to the SEC school’s 2016 recruiting class — a decision that he’d privately held for several weeks now.
And his coach, Terry Herrod — now in his third year at the school — said not to expect any commitment flipping dramatics from his rising senior defensive end.
“Tennessee is for sure,” Herrod said. “That’s a lock. A done deal. He feels really, really good about the decision. For the last two weeks almost every school in the country had been here looking at him. Penn State, Florida, South Carolina, Notre Dame. California schools. You name it, they’ve been here. But all of those schools’ presence really just re-affirmed why he was comfortable with his decision to choose Tennessee.”
Okonya chose the Volunteers and coach Butch Jones over Ole Miss, Duke, Clemson and Stanford. The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder is a consensus four-star prospect according to most recruiting services, but he’s also a star in the classroom, carrying a 4.0 grade point average at Riverdale while scoring a 24 on the ACT.
“He’s an Ivy League student in the body of an SEC caliber athlete,” Herrod said. “He’s No. 5 in his class, on the beta club, honors society. Academics wasn’t an issue. He was going to get a scholarship, football or not. But Chidi wants to play football on the big stage. He’s a stellar football player who also happens to be a scholar. For him, it was a football decision.”
But Okonya says academics played a part as well. Although scholastic blue bloods like Duke and Stanford were in the picture, Okonya said Tennessee provided him with the best of both worlds.
“Overall, it was about just how well I saw myself being there,” Okonya said. “And Tennessee had the balance of both academics and football. I loved what the university had to offer as far as my intended major of business.”
Okonya said he plans to major in either business analytics or business management. He doesn’t know yet what that would translate into for him after football, though he said he sees himself working in positions that would allow him to “communicate with people and network with big names in the business field.”
For now, he’ll be focusing on preparing himself to push past big offensive linemen in college football’s premier conference. Part of that means going out with a bang in his last year in high school.
“We at Riverdale had a young team last year, and we made a lot of errors along the way,” he said. “But this year, I think we’re more experienced, we’re deep, especially in the skill positions. And I feel great about the season. Making the (college) decision now will help me focus on playing my best game this year. I definitely feel like I’m going to be able to use my hands better and my first step. Improving on that and my overall play, I think, will help me with finishing strong.”
Okonya had 62 tackles, including seven for losses during Riverdale’s 3-7 2014 campaign. He also recorded five sacks, three recovered fumbles and a defensive touchdown.
His offer list was 30 schools long and included overtures from 2014-15 National runner-up Oregon and in-state rivals Georgia and Georgia Tech. But his choice of Tennessee makes him the fourth athlete from the four-county area to choose the Vols in the last three years.
Already, Tennessee has rising junior standout cornerback Cam Sutton (Jonesboro) and former Locust Grove star safety Cortez McDowell, a redshirt freshman, on its roster.
Consensus five-star wide receiver prospect Preston Williams (Lovejoy) signed with a top-five 2015 Tennessee recruiting class back in February during National Signing Day to.
Okonya said that, while it wasn’t a predominant factor in his decision, knowing that he’ll see some familiar faces from South Metro Atlanta won’t hurt.
“When I went up there to visit a few times, I saw some of those guys and it was great seeing those guys,” he said. “But I didn’t really realize we had that many from the area until recently. It really just came down to just the place was right for me.”