Ever since Mike Tomlin took over the reins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach in 2007, one phrase has been drummed into the heads of his players: “The Standard is the standard”.
The axiom is written on the walls, and is meant to coexist with the league-wide mantra, “Next Man Up”. The phrases mean that regardless of the situation faced by the team or players, the standard being upheld never changes. Backups are expected to play to the same standard as the player being replaced.
Rookie offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor has been indoctrinated into “The standard,” and as the youngest lineman in one of the NFL’s best and most experienced offensive line groups, Okorafor has found himself in a situation most would hope to fall into.
Selected in the third round of the NFL draft in April, Okorafor landed under the tutelage of one of the premier offensive line coaches in the league in Mike Munchak, as well as in the company of veterans Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, and Alejandro Villanueva.
These players are not prone to coddling, and yet: “Both our tackles [Villanueva and Gilbert] are always helping me out,” Okorafor tells ESPN.
“If they see me do something wrong in a play and it’s something I can fix, they pull me to the side and kind of explain to me what happened and what I should have done better.”
In previous years, the Steelers have brought young offensive linemen into the mix slowly by making them active on game days without actually starting on the line, but rather by playing as an extra tight end in jumbo packages.
Okorafor, only 21, understands and appreciates the method: “There’s really no rush in playing me right now.
“Whichever way they see fit for me, in terms of playing once or all the snaps, it doesn’t really matter to me at this point. I just have to keep on playing better every week and see what happens.
“There are guys here who are bigger, stronger, faster, so I’m just trying to take it day by day. To be a rookie and just having so much stuff thrown at me, I think I’m doing well.
“I didn’t go to a team with all bad players. I’m on a team with All-Pros playing for 7,8,10 years so you can’t be thinking ‘you’re the man’ or something like that.”
All-Pro Right Guard David DeCastro told ESPN about Okorafor’s progress: “Chuks is good. The rookie year is tough. You learn a lot, not just football stuff.
“He’s a young guy, he’s got the body type, he’s got the ability and weapons and now he’s just learning the game. It took me some time to learn the game at this level, and he’s got a great coach, got a great group and we’re doing the best to coach him up.”
In week 12, with starter Marcus Gilbert and backup Matt Feiler both dealing with injuries, Okorafor was called on to start at right tackle in against the Broncos in Denver, to play a major role in keeping All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller out of the pocket and away from Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Provided with help by DeCastro, and at other times with a tight end lined up next to him, the Nigerian held his own for much of the game against Miller, but did give up a sack during the game and found it difficult to corral the quicker player a few times late on.
The Steelers totaled season highs in both total yards (527) and passing yards (462) while holding the Broncos to just two sacks on Roethlisberger during the loss on Sunday. All in all, Okorafor performed well in his first start and gave his teammates, coaches, and fans reason to believe in him.
Capable of playing at both left and right tackle, Okorafor is a testament to hard work both on the field and in the film room. A late arrival to the sport, he first began playing in high school as a kicker, before moving to the offensive line.
As with many parents unfamiliar with the game, Okorafor’s Nigerian mother was opposed to her son playing the sport, he says: “My mom was not a fan at all.
“After I finished my sophomore year of playing, my mom made me stop football, so for the whole offseason I had to kind of beg and plead to her that it was safe to play.
“She saw everyone getting hit and I was so young, I always played with older players. So in high school they were 18 and 19 [on Varsity] and I was 15 or so, and my mom was kind of scared of the age difference.
“She cared about my school work too. When she eventually let me start playing she said as long as I could keep up with my school work then I could play.”
Even now, as one of the league’s youngest players, the Western Michigan product has duties and errands to run for the vets in his position group, but Okorafor remains humble and keeps his duties in stride. “Rookie stuff, I have to buy food every Thursday. It could be worse.”
DeCastro says: “Of course we rib him, he’s a rookie and Munch [Munchak] is the number one proponent of that. Gotta keep the rookies in line, keep them honest and keep them working hard, don’t let them be complacent.
“The sky’s the limit, he’s got a lot of natural ability and he’s in good hands.”