Chris Akporoghene isn’t your typical high school offensive tackle. The talented, big-bodied offensive lineman wasn’t even playing American football four years ago. It wasn’t until he moved to the U.S. from Nigeria that he first picked up a football.
Akporoghene (pronounced Ak-por-roh-guh-ney) moved from Nigeria to Tennessee to pursue a better life, and he was already a gargantuan human being as a young teenager. He played basketball as a sport but had never played football before. Powell head football coach Matt Lowe, his former coach at The Kings Academy in Seymour, took Chris in as part of his family, and he wanted to try him out at football despite the lack of experience.
“Physically, when he walked through the door the first time, you knew ‘hey man, this kid’s got a chance,” Lowe told me. “At the time he came in as a 15-year-old he was probably 6-foot-3, 230 or 235 pounds, but you saw that there was a chance that this kid was going to be a player.
“Early on it was all about the simple things, how to put on a helmet, where do the thigh pads go, where do the knee pads go. The same things that so many kids who grow up around the sport are figuring out when they’re six or seven years old he was figuring out the spring of his freshman year.”
Lowe said that Akporoghene “arguably might have had one of the worst three-point stances you’ve ever seen” when he first began playing. Lowe and his staff thought he would be perfect fit at tight end given his size and experience playing basketball. But they were quickly proven wrong.
“We trotted him out at tight end and defensive end early in his career that first spring and figured out very quickly he couldn’t catch,” Lowe stated. “He was a former basketball player with massive hands, so you’re thinking ‘hey man, this kid’s going to be a great tight end.’ Sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.”
After playing defensive end for a year, Akporoghene was moved to the offensive line. But his lack of knowledge about the game of football made Lowe have to go back to his roots as a coach.
“You kinda had to step back and go back to those fundamentals and go back to a lot of those basics,” Lowe explained. “You couldn’t talk about A-gaps and B-gaps and things of those nature because he had no idea what you were talking about.”
Akporoghene was a blank slate for Lowe and his staff to help mold. And it didn’t take long for them to see just how much potential the huge lineman had.
Lowe says that it was during Akporoghene’s first ever high school football game when TKA was taking on Seymour during his sophomore season that he first flashed his skills.
“I’ll never forget … it was the first game he ever played in a high school football game. (After the game) I went back and started watching the clips of that game, and one play stood out to me,” Lowe said. “It reminded me so much of what you see in these young, undeveloped kids who simply have raw strength. There was one particular play I ended up putting as the first play on his highlights for most of his sophomore year where he basically latches on to a defensive end — he was playing right tackle at the time — and the ball was snapped at the 20-yard line. He let that kid go when they got into the end zone. He just grabs that kid and runs him backward into the end zone.
“The play is over and he comes back and he doesn’t even have a clue of what he just did, of how impressive it was physically of what he just accomplished. At the same time, there were still a lot of mistakes made, a lot of wrong steps, going the wrong direction. We knew there was a lot of room for improvement. But in that one play, you saw the potential that he had to really be good in this game.”
Akporoghene quickly learned and started capitalizing on that potential. According to Lowe, the now 6-foot-4, 290-pound lineman is a perfectionist who is constantly working on trying to fine tune his game and get better.
“The great thing about Chris is he’s very devoted to his craft and very devoted to learning,” Lowe said. “Whether that’s in the classroom or some of the social things or the game of football, he’s very devoted to learning. He’s a perfectionist. He wants to get things right and get them mastered. … He’s one of those young men who will go out there and work the entire practice, then when practice is over he’s off working on his own.
“There’s always something that he’s going to do after a practice.”
Lowe went on to tell me that Akporoghene would be out on the field at 6:30 or 7:00 AM for 8 o’clock workouts during the summer. But it’s not just his attention to detail and work ethic on the field that stands out to Lowe; it’s his mentality and devotion to learning more about the game.
“He watches more video than any kid I think I’ve been around,” Lowe added. “It’s not just critiquing himself as much as it is watching some of the best players in the game, the best offensive tackles at the collegiate and professional level and the guards and the way they use their bodies and explode off the line of scrimmage. He tries to replicate what some of those other guys are doing and trying to use those same drills he sees other people doing at his position so that he can see exactly how good he can become.”
But there was only so much Akporoghene could do in a small town outside of Knoxville. And he had a tough decision to make after his junior season.
Akporoghene was quickly outgrowing the competition in Seymour and the surrounding east Tennessee area. He had attended several camps over the summer before his junior year, and he went out and impressed during his junior season at TKA. But Chris wanted more, and Lowe understood that.
“He had a very good junior season. You saw lots of progress and knew he was there,” Lowe stated. “And at that point, the opportunity came for him to take the next step and go to IMG. We talked a lot with our family with what was the right move. Simply enough, it was tough not to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Lowe added that the competition in east Tennessee is great, but the level of competition Akporoghene would experience not only in games, but just in practices alone at IMG Academy would be an opportunity that could lead to something greater for him.
And it did.
Akporoghene blew up on the recruiting trail and has nearly three dozen scholarship offers to his name now. But it took longer than expected for the “home town” team to finally offer him.
Tennessee’s previous coaching staff never offered Akporoghene despite him visiting campus several times while he still lived in the Knoxville area. And that lack of an offer led to irritation on his part.
“I think there was some basic frustration,” Lowe explained. “Any kid who grows up in this area, and even though he didn’t grow up here from an early age, what he knew of big time football he experienced here. We had the opportunity to go to a few games his sophomore year, and he got to see what that big time environment was like. And during some of those visits he would get a little frustrated because the offer didn’t come.
“Once things picked up for him and other offers started coming in from around the country, the fact that the school that he had first learned what big time college football was about just didn’t seem that interested (was frustrating to him). There was frustration from his part and on our part as a family.”
But according to Lowe, “things started to change” once Jeremy Pruitt came in and new running backs coach Chris Weinke started recruiting Akporoghene.
Weinke was a coach at IMG Academy for years before taking a job as an assistant in the NFL. He then moved on to become an off-field assistant at Alabama, and Pruitt hired him as the Vols’ running backs coach this offseason. He has a connection with IMG, and he started to build a relationship with Akporoghene. When Akporoghene attended a camp on UT’s campus in mid-June, he finally picked up that long-awaited offer from the Vols.
It was thanks to that relationship and the rapport Akporoghene built up with Pruitt and offensive line coach Will Friend that led to him ultimately committing to Tennessee. But the decision to choose the Vols somewhat surprised Lowe, especially after teams like Texas, Oregon, and Duke had been recruiting him harder for longer.
“It did and it didn’t (surprise me),” Lowe said of Akporoghene’s decision to commit to the Vols. “It did because some other guys had put in a lot of time and effort in recruiting him. I know he was being pulled in some different directions and really liked some of the relationships he had built and was very impressed with the facilities and staffs he got to know through the recruiting process. It was impressive that Coach Pruitt and the staff were able to flip him and get him as a commit at the University of Tennessee.
“Chris is one of the more loyal people you’re going to be around. He likes being close to family and likes having family around. He likes having people there that he knows. I think he’s really found his groove and likes being in the area and likes what football has offered him here in the area.”
Tennessee needs help along the offensive line in a big way in the future, and getting a commitment from someone like Chris Akporoghene was huge for the Vols’ new coaching staff. What he lacks in pedigree, Akporoghene more than makes up for in pure physical strength and an unmatched work ethic.
The Vols may have been slow to offer Akporoghene, but they’ll likely be glad they have him on their side once it’s all said and done.