2024 CFL Draft profiles: San Diego State DL Daniel Okpoko found his Saskatchewan identity in football

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/John McCoy

For Daniel Okpoko, the hardest part of adjusting to major college football was Adam Sandler.

It was the celebrated comedic actor’s hit 2010 film Grown Ups which set the tone for so many of the interactions he had south of the border. All thanks to one scene in which a hunky lifeguard loses all his sex appeal due to a squeaky accent and a ridiculously mispronounced hometown.

“That’s what everybody brings up to me. Every time I say I’m from Saskatoon, it’s just Grown Ups. I can tell before someone asks me that question, they just start laughing,” the San Diego State defensive lineman said in an interview with 3DownNation last month.

“When you talk about culture shock, I was just surprised at how little Americans know about Canadians or Canada in general. They don’t know anything and they ask some of the wildest questions. It’s just insane.”

Queries about igloo dwelling and ribs about “Saskatchatoon, eh” lose their appeal after a while, but that sometimes irritating scene feels a little more appropriate ahead of the 2024 CFL Draft. At six-foot-four and 274 pounds with a lean build and whopping 35-inch arms, Okpoko is now the subject of desire emerging from the water while CFL scouts play the role of Maya Rudolph and Salma Hayek sitting slack-jawed poolside.

The Nigerian-born defender has the type of frame that turns heads when he walks in the room, a tailor-made football player with the length to rush off the edge at a weight appropriate for a CFL defensive tackle. It seems there is something to be said for genetics because long before Okpoko had even learned the rules of the sports, members of his family were dominating it.

Having arrived in Canada decades prior, his cousin Israel Idonije worked his way from the University of Manitoba to the Chicago Bears. He enjoyed a 12-year NFL career along the defensive line, thanks in part to his equally drool-worthy frame.

“He always hosted these youth camps in Africa where he would come with some of his teammates for a couple of days. Every time he came down to do that, we would go see him,” Okpoko recalled. “I knew from a very young age about his involvement with football but I never got the chance to watch or play the sport because we didn’t do that in Nigeria.”

That all changed when he turned 11 and his branch of the family made their own immigration journey, settling one province over in Saskatchewan. Arriving on October 1, there were a couple of things that became immediately apparent. The first was that the bitter wind and persistent snowfall — the first time he had ever seen the latter — would take some getting used to. The second was that the Roughriders were a ubiquitous part of the local identity.

Okpoko grew to love both of those aspects of his new home. While his cautious parents would not allow him to play organized football until high school, he quickly became a schoolyard stud in pickup games and learned to relate to everything his peers were talking about by watching videos at home.

The Riders became his team and he grew a particular affinity for starting quarterback Darian Durant, emboldened by seeing a prominent Black face in a province where few people looked like him. Though the rest of his family were slower in their adoption of fandom, even they couldn’t avoid being swallowed by the green wave.

“If you turned on the TV, especially at the time we moved, that’s what you saw. Nobody was really a fan of football but when (the Riders) made it to the Grey Cup in 2013, my family had a whole watch party,” Okpoko explained. “We didn’t watch football, we didn’t play it at that time. It was just something that people do in Saskatchewan.”

Once he picked up the sport in earnest, he quickly established himself as a top-level prospect thanks to his physical measurables. A dominant force for St. Joseph’s High School and Team Saskatchewan, he never went stateside like many elite Canadian recruits do these days. Instead, he gained exposure by attending camps across the province and as far away as Winnipeg, largely relying on word of mouth to get him in front of NCAA programs.

It was a CFL connection between one of his coaches in Saskatoon and the staff at San Diego State that proved to be the difference, giving them the edge over offers from BYU, Fresno State, and North Dakota. The warmer weather was a nice change of pace and the style of game didn’t faze him, though he quickly discovered that a different level of preparedness was required than what he was used to.

Fortunately for him, the Aztecs boasted a talented defensive line room that offered him plenty of players to emulate, including eventual third-round NFL draft pick Cameron Thomas.

“When I first got there, I didn’t know anything about watching film. When I saw Cam doing all this stuff, that was when I learned how to do it,” Okpoko admitted. “He was one of those guys who would want you to join him to watch film after practice, do all this extra stuff and do drills to work on things that Coach mentioned. His work ethic is something that I try to copy quite a lot.”

Being surrounded by talent was a double-edged sword, however, as it limited opportunities to get on the field. After redshirting in 2018, Okpoko played just 161 defensive snaps over the course of the next four seasons, resulting in 12 tackles and a single sack. He never had the same defensive line coach in consecutive years either, seemingly returning him to square one every offseason.

The role of career backup was a deeply frustrating one and the COVID-19 pandemic afforded the Canadian one last year of eligibility. Given the current climate in college football, most would have expected him to jump ship and transfer long before that. A change of scenery for his sixth year seemed an obvious choice to outsiders but Okpoko defied convention, instead putting his trust in head coach Brady Hoke.

“He was one of those guys who believed in his players, and he wouldn’t lie to you. He’d tell you how it is straight-up and for me, he told me why I wasn’t getting my playing time,” he explained. “I knew what I had to work on. Having a coach like that, was what made me stay. We had a lot of people transfer and I just stuck it out.”

That unwavering belief that his time would come ultimately paid off, as Okpoko became a full-time starter in his final collegiate season and nearly tripled his previous career gametime. He posted a personal best 23 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and batted three passes, all well playing on his off-hand side to fulfill the most complex role on the Aztecs’ d-line.

Unfortunately, the personal success came in a difficult 4-8 season for SDSU, though that may have been the catalyst for his improved performance. Okpoko credits his decision to step into an active leadership role for the breakout and notes that he added nearly 20 pounds last summer after realizing the team had no one left to rely on but him.

“What changed was that I realized I had to be a leader on that team, I stopped relying on the top guys. All those guys left, the team was in shambles,” he admitted. “We had people leaving because of the NIL, somebody had to step up. Somebody had to lead the way and do something. It was like, ‘Alright, I’ll do it. I don’t care what it takes.'”

Okpoko’s remarkable loyalty and willingness to rise to the challenge will check major intangible boxes for CFL teams, while his physical measurables speak for themselves. After a strong showing at the CFL Combine in Winnipeg, he’s on the rise up many boards and could be selected in the first round at the end of the month.

Though he’s currently living and training in Calgary following a family move, the coveted defender is still a Saskatchewanian at heart and admits that going to one particular team would be extra special.

“It would be like one of those ‘come to Jesus’ moments when you hear the halo and all of that. Just a full-circle kind of feeling,” Okpoko said of potentially being drafted by the Riders. “The circle of life, I don’t know what else to call it. After going away, it would end up back where it started.”

Saskatchewan holds the third overall selection when the 2024 CFL Draft begins on Tuesday, April 30 at 8:00 p.m. EDT.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.