Oli Udoh lost more than 50 pounds to play for Elon University. Yet this spring, the gargantuan tackle sat in front of NFL teams during draft interviews and listened to questions about his commitment to football.
Those teams found out a lot of interesting things about Udoh, who was taken in the sixth round (193rd overall) by the Vikings on April 27.
An honor roll son of a doctor and a nurse, the 6-5, 325-pounder also has visions of a medical career. So Benjamin and Rita Udoh, owners of a medical practice in Fayetteville, N.C., and Nigerian immigrants, “took a little bit of time” to warm up to the idea of the second of their four children choosing the path of modern-day gladiator.
“We were very wary, because of the injury risk associated with football,” Rita Udoh said. “But I came on board when I knew exactly it was something he loved doing.”
Udoh’s commitment to football helped him overcome the odds of making it to the NFL — and so did his size.
“I knew, and have always known, Oli was strong,” Benjamin Udoh said.
Oli’s growth spurts first ate into the Udoh family budget when the week’s worth of groceries lasted only three days. As a youngster, playing hide-and-seek was futile, he says, because he had no chance fitting under a bed. The family car eventually became a spacious Chevy Suburban, out of necessity.
“We had no choice,” Rita Udoh said.
But eventually those tree-trunk limbs and fluid movements caught the attention of NFL personnel, such as Vikings offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison, who lobbied his bosses to take a late-round swing on a player who is a project. The Vikings were sold after Udoh held up against tougher competition at college all-star games. Udoh bonded with assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko, who served as coordinator in the East-West Shrine Game.
“He’s got great size and is a really, really good athlete,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We figured he would be a guy that has a lot of upside to work with.”
You don’t often see 325 pounds move quickly, which is why General Manager Rick Spielman noted Udoh’s 40-yard dash time (5.05 seconds) moments after drafting him. Only five offensive linemen bested his straight-line speed at the scouting combine, and the heaviest of those five was 10 pounds lighter than Udoh.
Spielman could have pointed to another rarity, Udoh’s arm length (35⅜ inches). Udoh’s 7-foot-plus wingspan was the longest among 47 offensive linemen benching at the combine. Despite those long arms, however, he still ranked 16th with 26 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
Udoh’s full first name — Olisaemeka — means “God is good” in a Nigerian dialect. But how good will a lineman of his unique size and skill set be in the NFL? Travis Martz, Udoh’s agent, remains confident of his client’s eventual success.
“God just doesn’t make many of these players,” he said.
Discovering a game that suits him
Football wasn’t always the grand plan, it was only a game Udoh first saw on television in middle school. The showcase of strength and bursts of activity attracted him, instead of the constant action on the basketball court where he was recruited to a grade-school practice. Sprints ended the hoops experiment, even if he could dunk without a running start.
He preferred a game where fouls don’t come so easily.
“Just loved it,” said Udoh, who first played football as a sophomore at Fayetteville’s Sanford High School.
Other loves, such as junk food, were put aside when he stepped onto the scale at 384 pounds as an Elon freshman. He then failed a conditioning test.
After a redshirt year and a new diet led to the 50-pound loss, Udoh started 45 consecutive games. Tony Trisciani, Elon’s head coach and former defensive coordinator, first envisioned an NFL future for Udoh when he frustrated Elon’s star pass rushers with those long limbs.
“When you have that kind of length and strength — that’s what NFL guys look like,” Trisciani said. “It didn’t take long to figure out he was a guy that would have a chance.”
NFL teams questioned if Udoh possessed a “nasty” streak, which didn’t show through finished blocks until his senior year. He is soft-spoken in interviews. His own agent left their first meeting impressed but clueless whether Udoh would sign with the agency because of his quiet nature.
Trisciani, however, watched Udoh learn to tap into a below-the-surface combativeness on the field.
“You don’t want to mistake kindness for weakness with Oli,” Trisciani said.
Family support, confusion
Not many draft picks come from Elon, an FCS program in the Colonial Athletic Association. Udoh is the 16th pick in Elon history, and only the third since 1992, when the Vikings made receiver Joe Randolph a 12th-round pick.
So Elon, and its 11,250-seat Rhodes Stadium, made an appropriate learning environment for the Udoh family, which immigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. Rita Udoh embraced football by leading autumn caravans on the 90-mile drive northwest from Fayetteville to watch Oli’s home games.
Cheers are always there, even if timing is a work in progress.
“I’m making noise when I’m not supposed to,” Rita Udoh said. “I’m watching and thinking, ‘Oh, we tackled them,’ and it’s, ‘No, no, they tackled us.’ I’m still a very confused fan, but the main thing is we support him.”
Support will remain if Udoh eventually practices medicine, the family business. “When it’s all said and done,” he said, he’d like to have a career in orthopedic or internal medicine.
It runs in the Udoh family.
Udoh’s older brother, Chiagozie, is a former basketball player working to be a dentist. His younger sister, Una, plays basketball at Wake Forest and wants to be a pediatrician. The youngest, Ezemdi, is challenging Oli’s title for top family athlete as a high school junior, already possessing Division I football offers from Tennessee and Virginia.
Udoh said he still owns his clan’s bragging rights “for now.”
“[Ezemdi] has got the offers and is a pretty athletic kid,” Udoh said. “So we’ll see how long it lasts.”