Dedication as receiver pays off for Wesley’s Okike

James Okike

James Okike

DOVER — Chip Knapp’s message is really pretty simple.

It’s what the veteran Wesley College offensive cooordinator tells all his young players.

“He said, ‘If I can’t trust you,’” receiver James Okike recalls, “‘I can’t play you.’”

For some guys, it takes a little longer than others to earn that trust.

With Okike, the talent was always there. It’s just taken until now, his junior season, for him to get on the field — and stay out there.

But the results have made it worth the wait.

With the fifth-ranked Wolverines (2-0) facing a big 2 p.m. (EST) showdown on Saturday at No. 22 North Central, Ill. (1-1), Okike already has eight catches for 191 yards and three touchdowns.

That’s more than Okike had in his first two seasons combined (6 catches-48 yards, 1 TD).

Wesley coach Mike Drass said he remembers Okike making some “wowing” plays in practice when he was a freshman.

“People were like, ‘Whoa, look at that guy,’” said Drass. “But it’s different when you get in the varsity game. The speed’s different. He got some playing time right away and he didn’t make the big ‘wow’ plays.”

Rather than get discouraged, however, Drass said Okike just worked harder. He can remember driving by the Wolverines’ field over the summer and seeing Okike and Wesley’s other receivers out there working on their own.

With some of the wideouts that the Wolverines lost to graduation, Drass admits he was worried about who they would have at the position this fall.

“You’re happy for that kid,” said Drass. “Here’s a guy that’s worked his tail off. There’s a question with the team, like, ‘Are we going to have a quality receiving corps?’

“All of a sudden, he steps up. In camp, after two days, we knew that, hey, we’re going to be fine.”

With former star Steve Koudossou ahead of him in the rotation, Okike knew it might take a while for him to earn more playing time.

But he’s proud that he’s worked himself into a good spot. He’s also lost 20 pounds, which has added some speed to his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame.

Okike, a high jumper on Wesley’s track team, said he even enjoys watching film.

“It makes me a better player and better receiver,” he said. “I see coverages before it happens. … I just like everything about football.

“As Steve (Koudossou) finished out last year, I felt as though I had to step up to be the next guy. We’ve got great receivers. Our corps is deep. We were all working out all summer. The receivers were definitely not going to be the weak link of the team.”

Slow start, fast finish

The Wolverines believe they can have a pretty good defense, even if there are a lot of new faces on that side of the ball.

But that doesn’t mean those guys can play like veterans right away.

Junior cornerback Andre Connally said Wesley’s defenders got off to a rough start against Christopher Newport last Saturday simply because they were nervous.

“I think it was jitters,” explained the Appoquinimink High grad. “We weren’t really digging down and doing what we do best. We were kind of scattered everywhere — not playing as one.

“We just need to start off calm and do what we do in practice. We need to focus and just do our job.”

The Captains scored 17 points in the first 17 minutes of last week’s game but just seven points the rest of the way. Christopher Newport also picked up only 179 yards after its first three drives.

Wesley won the game, 44-24.

Connally was one of the players who helped turn things around on defense. He finished with nine tackles, an interception and two pass breakups.
In his first season starting at cornerback, Connally already has three interceptions.

“You make interceptions because you’re in position,” said Drass.

“I think we have a lot of talent on defense,” Drass added. “There’s good football players everywhere. But they’re all new. It’s the difference between knowing the defense and truly understanding the defense when you step on the field. … We’re going to be a pretty good defense. But it’s a work in progress.”

Extra points

With 83 career touchdown passes, senior quarterback Joe Callahan needs four more to tie Shane McSweeny for second on Wesley’s all-time list. … The Wolverines lead the NJAC in both total offense (638 yards) and scoring offense (44.0 points).

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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