Surbhi Bharadwaj

For most of Yale football’s current senior class, Nov. 18, 2017 marked a bittersweet day. While the Elis dominated rival Harvard to earn the program’s first outright conference championship in 37 years, the contest’s final whistle signaled the end of collegiate football for more than two dozen players.

For a select few, however, the Bulldogs’ finale to their historic season served as a launching point to pursue a future in the NFL; six Yale athletes have been training both independently and with their team since season’s end to ready themselves for a shot at the pros. With the draft just over a week away, All-Ivy linebackers Foye Oluokun ’18 and Matt Oplinger ’18 find themselves in the discussion as potential late-round, day-three draft picks, while four additional players participated in Yale’s Pro Day with hopes of signing with a team as an undrafted free agent or earning an invite to a rookie mini camp.

Other than the Bulldogs’ impressive linebacker duo, tight ends Tim Dawson ’18 and Jaeden Graham ’18, wide receiver Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18 and defensive lineman Copache Tyler ’18 all await a chance to try out for an NFL roster.

“You know what type of intangibles you’re going to get from an Ivy League [athlete],” HERO Sports senior writer and FCS reporter Brian McLaughlin said. “You’re going to get somebody who’s going to be able to handle an NFL playbook, and that’s no small feat. When an Ivy League guy comes along and they can do the measurables, everyone knows that the intangible, off-the-field intelligence is just going to be there. [That] makes for a really good pro prospect.”

Oluokun and Oplinger have done the most thus far to show they possess the physical tools to match their intellect. Oplinger was more on scouts’ radars at the end of the season, according to McLaughlin, but Oluokun seems to have leapfrogged his teammate with stellar performances during his two Pro Days — one headlined by star Fordham running back Chase Edmonds and the other with his Yale teammates.

Oluokun experienced a different draft preparation process compared to the rest of his teammates as the fifth-year senior graduated from Yale at the end of the fall semester. An injury during his original senior year allowed the hybrid linebacker-safety to retain a year of eligibility, and Oluokun has made the most of his second chance.

Standing at 6’1 and 230 pounds, coaches have always told Oluokun that he had the physical build and athleticism to match NFL prospects year to year. But during his career at Yale, Oluokun set his personal aspirations aside to focus on winning games.

With the ability to train full-time starting in January, Oluokun ditched his original plan to train in New Haven and jumped at the opportunity to train with newly hired Denver Broncos strength coach Loren Landow for three months in Denver, alongside other prospects. Landow — who trained current Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey last summer — was recommended to Oluokun by his high school coach, former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte. In high school under Frerotte, Oluokun shared the field with All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Oluokun turned heads after posting combine-like numbers at an impressive Pro Day. Oluokun’s 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, vertical jump and broad jump all would have landed among the top six at the combine for linebackers. Since then, he has seen his NFL stock rise considerably, with a number of teams showing interest in the versatile defender.

Having played cornerback, safety and linebacker at Yale, Oluokun expects he will also have to be flexible at the professional level, developing the skills for multiple positions. In the meantime, Oluokun said he will keep his expectations low and tune out outside speculation to focus on making a 53-man roster at the end of training camp.

“I can only focus on what I can control,” Oluokun said. “They’re not looking at me any different if I’m a free agent or a late-round pick. The only difference is as a late-round pick, I know where I’m going and as a free agent, I’m choosing where I’m going, so I don’t really have any expectations.”

Since arriving back in New Haven, Oluokun has teamed up with fellow linebacker Oplinger to continue training. Oplinger, whose career total of 21.5 sacks is the third-highest in Yale football history, collected a number of accolades in his final season with the Bulldogs. He was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award for FCS Defensive Player of Year, the winner of the Bushnell Cup for Ivy League Defensive MVP and an All-New England selection.

Oplinger declined to comment on his expectations going into the draft, citing the uncertainty of the process. Scouts from the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants were reportedly both on hand at Yale’s Pro Day to scout Oplinger. Although the New Jersey native’s numbers did not jump off the page like Oluokun’s, his tape speaks for itself, according to McLaughlin. The HERO Sports writer added that, should Oplinger go undrafted, he will at the very least end up as a priority free agent.

The final Bulldog to garner some attention leading into the draft is an unlikely one. With just one season as a tight end under his belt, Graham will probably not hear his name called in Arlington. But after leaving Denver ,where he was invited to the Broncos’ local prospect day, Graham felt hopeful that the successful workout — in addition to a solid performance on Pro Day — would boost his chances of signing as an undrafted free agent.

Originally recruited to New Haven as an outside linebacker, Graham made the transition to tight end for his senior season. Following consecutive injury-plagued seasons his sophomore and junior years, Graham was a top-two option for quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 in his final season and finished as a first-team All-Ivy selection.

“For me, it’s just working hard, getting an invite to a rookie camp. Then when I get that opportunity to shine, just going out and doing what I can do,” Graham said.

For Graham, Dawson, Siragusa Jr. and Tyler, the reality is that they will likely not be drafted. These four players must hope that a team sees something in their tape and Pro-Day performances to merit a training camp invitation. Oluokun and Oplinger face a different future, however. They have legitimate shots at getting drafted, with Oluokun featured in more mock drafts at the moment than Oplinger.

Regardless, the two linebackers are near guarantees to be at a rookie mini camp, according to McLaughlin. But an interesting dynamic will unfold as the draft nears the end of the seventh and final round.

“It may be better to go undrafted if you make it to the seventh round because then, it’s almost like recruiting,” McLaughlin said. “You can pick where you want to go based on what you see on the depth chart. Sometimes, not being drafted is not the worst thing.”

The NFL Draft will take place between April 26 and April 28. The last Yale football player to be selected in the draft was fullback Shane Bannon ’11, who went 233rd overall to the Kansas City Chiefs.

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