Steelers' Chuks Okorafor has shot to be more than backup
Turns out having a helmet thrown at him by a veteran during a camp-practice skirmish wasn’t the proverbial “Welcome to the NFL” moment for Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Chuks Okorafor.
Getting into the huddle with a pair of All Pros, listening to playcalls from a future Hall of Famer and lining up opposite a veteran former first-round pick was.
“When you are playing with such a good unit, raise your game up a little bit more,” Okorafor, a third-round offensive tackle, said of getting first-team reps this week.
“When you are going against people like (Bud Dupree) and all the guys, of course they have been doing it for a long time and they have been doing it at a high level, too. So I am just coming in and doing my best every day and seeing what’s going to happen.”
Okorafor won’t turn 21 until next week, he didn’t take up football until after emigrating from Botswana 2010 and he played his college ball in the MAC at Western Michigan.
But with the Steelers depth at tackle stretched because of the offseason departure of Chris Hubbard in free agency and the season-ending summer injury to Jerald Hawkins, Okorafor suddenly has scaled to No. 3 on the depth chart.
So when starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva suffered an injury to the upper right arm or shoulder area early during Wednesday’s practice, that bumped Okorafor up to the first team.
The Steelers’ usual first-team offensive line has a combined 38 seasons of NFL experience, and the average age is 30.
Can the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Okorafor fit in?
“He’ll be fun to watch,” offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. “He can improve in so many areas because he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things we do. So far, so good. He’s got the demeanor, the size, long arms.”
The early returns have been mixed. Okorafor has looked far from out of place lined up next to an offensive line unit that is so accomplished (albeit one without its most veteran member, Ramon Foster, who is sidelined for at least four more weeks because of a knee injury). At practice, Okorafor hardly stands out as wholly unequipped to play against NFL starters.
But there also have been growing pains: Dupree, at times, has beaten him in individual drills, 7-on-7 reps, 11-on-11 full-team simulations and in the “Seven Shots” 2-point conversion-style drill.
“You’re going to have some plays that aren’t so pretty,” Munchak said of tackle play in the NFL. “How he handles that and how he moves on to the next week will be fun to watch.”
Asked to assess his play so far in his first camp, Okorafor said, “I would say not too bad.
“But as a rookie there is still a bunch of stuff you’ve got to learn. So I am adjusting and trying to get used to everything and playing with different guys, too.”
Coach Mike Tomlin said he was pleased Okorafor’s conditioning has allowed him to fit in seamlessly playing with the “Ones.”
“I like the fact he has taken advantage of some of the rep opportunities that he’s been getting,” Tomlin said. “When you are in an environment like this and one guy goes down, one man’s misfortune is another one’s opportunity.”
Okorafor is one play away from regular-season opportunity at either left or right tackle — should he perform well enough in camp to hold off Jake Rodgers and (now-guard) Matt Feiler as the top “swing tackle,” anyway.
“I would think everyone’s goal would be to come in and earn a spot,” Okorafor said.
“It (stinks) that Al got hurt, but it’s my job to just play — whether it’s with the Ones, Twos or Threes.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.