March 11, 2024

Combine Ready: 4 things to know about Daniel Okpoko

San Diego State Athletics

You might think after a childhood full of cold prairie winters that Daniel Okpoko would have headed south to suit up for the San Diego Aztecs with a peace sign out the window, never to be seen in these parts — at least in the winter — again.

The 15th-ranked player in the winter edition of the CFL’s Scouting Bureau rankings is full of surprises, though.

The six-foot-five, 275-pound defensive lineman suited up in 37 games over five seasons with the Aztecs and while he’s been living in southern California, his love of those chilly, see-your-breath games with a season on the line never faded.

Ahead of the CFL Combine presented by New Era, this is your chance to get to know Daniel Okpoko.

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Football gateway: Darian Durant

Okpoko was born in Lagos, Nigeria but grew up in Saskatoon, Sask., where he got firsthand exposure to what the Roughriders mean to the entire province.

“My first actual football game I ever saw was the Roughriders,” he said.

“For me, my first real introduction (to) football was in Saskatchewan. So everything around me was the Roughriders, how they are and the fan base, they’re true diehard fans. Everywhere you went it was always Roughrider gear. It was just so fun watching the game.”

Watching Darian Durant at quarterback made Okpoko want to get on the field.

“What he was doing out there, it just spoke to me. I wanted to do that,” he said. “I played team Saskatchewan in high school. Football in Saskatchewan is different and I love it. It holds a special place in my heart.”

Cold weather? It’s game time

Okpoko loved his time at San Diego State, but some old football habits die hard. Whenever he got to face opponents like Colorado or Utah, he found himself craving the colder weather.

“It’s always stuck with me,” he said, adding that he’s now living and training in Calgary, where his family moved after a number of years in Saskatoon.

“I thought I wasn’t going to miss the cold. I got back (to Canada) and I was like, ‘Finally.’ Even in San Diego, playing the cold games, I felt like, ‘Thank God, this is my weather. This is football weather,'” he said.

“There’s just something with the atmosphere, playing in the cold that’s very much different.”

Okpoko started all 12 games for the Aztecs in 2023, posting 23 total tackles and two sacks (Photo courtesy: San Diego State Athletics)

Impressive family connections

Okpoko got into football later than he would have liked. While his friends were signing up in elementary school and playing football at recess, his parents held him out of the game until he hit grade nine.  They worried when he was younger that he didn’t have the size required to play. His parents can rest assured, looking at him today, that he’s big and strong enough to get on the field.

Growing up, Okpoko had a family member that he could pattern his game after. His cousin is 10-year NFL veteran defensive end, Israel Idonije, who, similar to Okpoko, was born in Nigeria but grew up in Winnipeg and landed in the NFL after a university career with the Manitoba Bisons.

“Going into high school, the summer before ninth grade, I signed up for the bantam team, this little league called KFL (Kinsmen Football league), because I didn’t want to go to high school not knowing so play football and just be a rookie,” he said. “(I wanted) to go in with a little bit of experience. That’s pretty much where I started getting involved in the game.”

Combine ready

Okpoko made his debut on the Scouting Bureau rankings in January. Last year at San Diego State, he started in all 12 of the Aztecs’ games and had 23 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks along with three pass breakups and five quarterback hurries.

He leaves the program with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and some invaluable football experience from a Div. 1 NCAA program that he’ll take into next week’s combine.

“It definitely was a culture shock when I got down there. I mean, football is different out there than it is back here,” Okpoko said of his time with the Aztecs.

“My whole experience there was really more of a learning experience. I feel like I grew from that and became a better football player. I was able to understand and learn the game from a different perspective than I was used to. My experience down there was just amazing, honestly.”

He’ll tap into a wealth of teammates and friends that have gone down the path he’s about to embark on and will bring that knowledge to the combine as well.

“I’m excited to go through the process,” he said. “It’s always a dream to partake in the combine in front of scouts and all that. I’m just excited for the whole experience of the combine. I’m just excited to get after it out there.”

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