LOGANVILLE, Ga. — New Loganville head football coach Brad Smith has yet to see Neto Okpala play live, either in practice or a game.
But based on his perusal of game film and his time spent working on the college level, he knows the senior defensive end is a special player.
“He’s a D-I kind of guy,” said Smith, who was a graduate assistant at the University of Georgia back in 2008. “Those kind of players are just bigger and faster and stronger than everybody else. They just move differently.”
Smith isn’t the only coach to notice. At least two dozen college coaches offered Okpala the opportunity to play on the next level at their school. On June 1, he settled on Boston College, which is just a short drive from his birthplace of Brooklyn, New York.
Among the others who came calling were Vanderbilt, Tulane and the service academies. Ultimately for Okpala, it came down to opportunity, communication, and academics.
“I feel like if the NFL thing doesn’t work out, I’ll have a degree that will set me up for the next 50 years,” Okpala said, who’s leaning toward majoring in a medical field.
It’s that type of maturity and forethought, contained within a chiseled 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame, that makes him such special athlete.
Okpala was born to Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States and met and married in New York. The family moved to Georgia when Okpala and his twin brother, Dozie, were 4 years old. They ended up in Loganville just in time for the siblings to play middle school football.
Okpala spent his freshman year on the junior varsity squad before being promoted to the varsity when region play began, although he rarely played. But he cracked the starting lineup as a sophomore and locked down a spot at defensive end.
Ryan Angel, current Red Devils defensive coordinator, was Okpala’s position coach when he became a fixture on the line two years ago.
“You could tell he was special,” Angel said. “He had such a strong work ethic, and he came in with a goal in mind. He wanted to be the best football player he could be.”
He held his own as a 10th grader while adjusting to the varsity level. As a junior, he emerged as a game-changer. He was among the team leaders in tackles with 68, recorded three sacks, and had 13 tackles for losses.
He reached double-digits in tackles against Monroe Area, St. Pius X and Walnut Grove. But his most memorable game was against top-ranked and eventual state champ Buford.
“He was just completely locked in for that game,” Angel recalled. “He was usually lined up on the strong side and he completely dominated the tight end. They had no answer for him.”
For Okpala, it was a seminal moment.
“After that game, I think I showed I could play with the big dogs,” Okpala said.
He’ll certainly have that chance next fall. But for now, he’s focused on his final year with the Red Devils.
“We’ve got a deep team and guys with a lot of experience,” Okpala said. “I think we’ve got a chance and the region championship, and we want to go deep into the playoffs.”