Growing up playing basketball in Nigeria, Chidi Valentine-Okeke’s experience with American football wasn’t exactly extensive.
“ESPN,” a smiling Valentine-Okeke said recently.
Unlike almost every one of his new teammates on LSU’s roster, Valentine-Okeke never dreamed of playing football for the school — or any other school — until coming to the United States two years ago.
Yet it didn’t stop the massive 6-foot-6, 315-pound tackle from being one of the most heavily recruited offensive linemen in the class of 2015 after a nomadic trek from Nigeria to Miami to Atlanta.
“He thought he was going to be a basketball player,” LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “He had no clue about what opportunity was lying in front of him.”
It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime, even if Valentine-Okeke was at a severe disadvantage competing against high school players who had been introduced to the sport at a young age.
“It’s a little bit hard because they’re definitely going to be good at it,” Valentine-Okeke said at LSU media day last week. “I’m trying to learn every day for my teammates, for my coaches. I try to put my mind into it and pick things up so I’m at a level pace with them.”
His task was made even tougher when the four-star prospect wasn’t cleared by the NCAA in time to enroll in summer school, when he could have participated in offseason workouts with the Tigers.
But that, coupled with the fact that he’s awfully raw, hasn’t stopped Valentine-Okeke from doing what he can to close the gap for a team that’s thin at the position behind starters Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins.
“He’s been great. … There’s a certain freshness about him that really encourages you as a coach,” Grimes said. “Here’s a guy that knows very, very little football but really wants to learn.
“He’s sitting in every meeting with his eyes wide open, asking questions and grabbing me or (grad assistant) Ryan (Pugh) and saying, ‘Hey coach, what is this right here?’”
Grimes knew it would take some time — especially after Valentine-Okeke played his first year at Champagnat Catholic in Hialeah, Florida, and his second season at Faith Baptist Christian in the Atlanta area.
His whirlwind high school career was punctuated by a recruiting battle coach Les Miles and Grimes won over Alabama and Auburn, who were thought to have the inside track on Valentine-Okeke until he made an official visit to LSU on Jan. 16 and committed 13 days later.
“It was a nice visit,” Valentine-Okeke said. “I got the opportunity to talk to the head coach one-on-one, and we had dinner. I was able to hang out with some players and took a tour of the school. Everything was nice around here: academicwise and footballwise.”
Valentine-Okeke credits Grimes and his new teammates with guiding and encouraging him in helping make the difficult transition from Nigeria to Southeastern Conference football in two short years.
“He certainly has a long way to go, but he’s got an unbelievable amount of potential,” Grimes said. “The sky is the limit. The question is how quickly he grasps the knowledge it takes to play at this level.”
Still, Valentine-Okeke’s teammates are amazed at what he’s able to do already.
“He’s picked things up great,” Hawkins said. “You can tell he’s comfortable. It looks like he’s been playing football since he was little.”
While untested, Alexander said Valentine-Okeke looks the part.
“Just look at him standing there,” he said with a laugh. “He’s a prototypical tackle. His arms are as long as tree trunks and has those big hands. He has the tools, he just has to focus and improve every day.”
“The best thing is he’s big and long and athletic; he’s got the longest arms of any human I’ve ever seen,” Grimes said. “He’s unbelievably long and talented and athletic, and he’s light on his feet.
“What he needs to work on now is understanding how to do things. He has to know how to step efficiently in the run game and where to put his hands in pass protection. Once he gets those things down, watch out.”
Advocate sportswriter Ross Dellenger contributed to this report.