Tag Archive: Tony Reno

  1. FOOTBALL: Reviewing the rise of Foye Oluokun ’18 and Jaeden Graham ’18, Yale’s duo in the NFL

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    In the second week of the NFL season last month, the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons found themselves in a game for the ages.

    Atlanta’s early 20-point lead had all but whittled down to two in the fourth quarter, and with four seconds remaining, a 46-yard field goal attempt by Dallas split the uprights, crushing the hearts of Falcons players and fans alike. Yet, in a game filled with dreadful negatives for Atlanta, there emerged one positive in the form of a 6-foot-2 linebacker who finished the game with three forced fumbles on only 17 recorded snaps, which Falcons head coach Dan Quinn described as the best 17 snaps he could remember from a linebacker.

    Quinn was referring to Yale football alumnus and sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Foye Oluokun ’18. While his performance against the Cowboys may have been an eye-opener for Falcons fans, it was merely reaffirmation for Yale fans. Former classmate Jaeden Graham ’18 plays alongside Oluokun in Atlanta, and the pair constitute Yale’s two active alumni playing in the NFL. 

    “Our players go on to do some pretty amazing things,” Yale football head coach Tony Reno said. “All Yale students do, but to have [Oluokun and Graham] playing professionally is awesome for us. We’re really excited for them and their journeys — journeys that were both a little different. They all had moments of adversity that hit, and they pushed through. 

    “The commonality I see between them is that they were very, very driven to be the best they could be, not only on the football field but in everything else in life. They were not going to take no for an answer, and they were going to exhaust all areas necessary to make sure they had a chance to play professionally.” 

    The Falcons declined requests to interview Oluokun and Graham.

    Oluokun’s journey: From St. Louis to New Haven to Atlanta

    Oluokun began his football career as a linebacker at John Burroughs School, a premier college-preparatory school located in Ladue, Missouri. Its football program has been just as preeminent — it has won the Missouri State Championship eight times. Oluokun’s arrival made an already illustrious team history even more distinguished. Alongside future NFL All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliot and Indiana State phenom Jake Bain, Oluokun helped lead his team to three district championships and two league titles. During his senior year, Oluokun was awarded All-League, All-District and All-State honors, making him one of the highest-rated recruits in Missouri. Of the offers he received from the Ivy League in Harvard, Yale and Penn, Oluokun landed on the Bulldogs, and his collegiate career donning the Blue and White was officially set to begin.

    Oluokun entered his 2013 rookie campaign with high expectations to perform well on a defense that ranked seventh in the Ancient Eight the fall before, and the St. Louis native lived up to the hype. In the 10 games he started as a first-year, Oluokun accounted for nearly 60 tackles, the most by any rookie in the Ivy League, earning him Second Team All-Ivy honors. In those 10 games, none stood out more than a November matchup against Brown — a contest that saw Oluokun tally what was then a career-high 13 total tackles in a 24–17 victory.

    “[Oluokun] has performed well all this season. He brings size, speed, strength and physicality to our secondary,” Victor Egu ’17 told the News during the 2014 season. “He really pushes our defense to the next level because of his effort. I trust [Oluokun] to do his job well and perform well on the field.”

    Picking up right where he left off during his sophomore year, Oluokun racked up a team-high 79 total tackles to go along with a pair of interceptions and a blocked kick. The bar had been raised, and he entered his third season poised to have even more success. Then, all of a sudden, adversity struck.

    During week three, Olukun suffered a pectoral tear in his chest, and the Yale star was forced to miss the remaining seven games of the season. Amidst a sidelining that had the makings to be a devastating blow to Oluokun’s football career, the Ancient Eight granted the Missourian an extra semester to play football, Reno said. In his fifth season as a red-shirt senior in 2017, Oluokun finished second on his team with 50 tackles, and in a must-win game against Harvard to close out the season, Oluokun finished the game with nine tackles and a sack, helping hold the Crimson offense to a meager three points as the Bulldogs went on to secure their first outright Ivy League crown in 37 years.

    Kurt Rawlings ’20, who quarterbacked that 2017 team, said he was impressed every week by the drive Oluokun displayed to perform his best on defense.

    “Foye’s willingness to play any defensive position was evident throughout his entire career,” Rawlings said. “His talent as a player, and even more so as a leader, was invaluable for us at Yale. I believe that Foye’s selflessness as a leader has allowed him to flourish into an incredibly versatile player many NFL teams seek to have on their defense.” 

    After ending his collegiate career with an Ancient Eight title, Oluokun wasted no time in taking whatever steps necessary to make it to the professional stage. Although he did not receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine during his last semester at Yale, Oluokun did participate in drills at a Pro Day with 20 NFL scouts in attendance that Fordham hosted, according to ESPN. There, he recorded a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.12 in the short shuttle, times that would have ranked sixth and second, respectively, among all linebackers at the NFL Combine.

    After the workout at Fordham’s Pro Day, Oluokun attended pre-draft visits with several NFL teams, and the Atlanta Falcons selected Oluokun in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft. He became the first Yale player drafted by an NFL team in seven years. 

    “I viewed myself as an undrafted free agent, especially because I came out of a small school, so I wasn’t sure how much film they had watched of me,” Oluokun said to the media after a training camp session in August. “I did everything I had to do to prove to them I had what it took. I realized very early on that everything I did was evaluated … My coaches loved the grit that I showed. They didn’t know I had that much grit at Yale, which was all we preached there. I was ready to do whatever it took to make the team.” 

    In early 2018, Oluokun recorded a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.12 in the short shuttle, times that would have ranked sixth and second, respectively, among all linebackers at that year’s NFL Combine. (Photo: Courtesy of Yale Athletics)

    Graham’s path: A positional switch and a breakout senior season

    Just about a month after the Falcons drafted Oluokun, his classmate Jaeden Graham ’18 signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent.

    Graham was born and raised in Colorado, and it was at Cherry Creek High School where his athletic prowess began to shine through. Not only was he a football defensive star, earning First Team All-State safety honors and the Iron Man award twice, but he was also a First Team selection in baseball and the captain of the track team. When he had to choose which sport to pursue in college, Graham went with football.

    Graham’s first three years as an Eli, however, were anything but perfect. In the five games he played as a rookie in 2014 alongside Oluokun on defense, he managed only five total tackles, splitting time between being on special teams and as a long snapper. Things did not improve much in the seven games he played in his sophomore campaign, while Oluokun was enjoying the best season of any Blue and White defender. Then, in the fateful months leading up to the 2016 season, Reno made a decision that forever changed the course of Graham’s football future.

    “After his sophomore year, the other Yale coaches and I came together and ultimately decided that [Graham] might be better served on offense,” Reno said. “So he transitioned to a position that he had never played in his career before: tight end. It took him his whole junior year to try to get his bearings. And then as a senior, the rest is history. He simply redefined the position of tight end for us at Yale.”

    After serving as the backup tight end his third year, Graham as a senior had one of the most successful seasons a tight end has ever enjoyed in the Blue and White. His four receiving touchdowns, 26 receptions and 380 yards led all tight ends in the Ivy League that year. His historic season did not go unnoticed by the FCS, which awarded the Colorado native with First Team All-ECAC honors to complement his First Team status in the Ancient Eight.

    After graduating, Graham received no invites to any combines or pre-draft NFL camps and was not picked up by any team in the 2018 NFL draft, Reno said. Nevertheless, the same resolve and tenacity Graham exhibited when transitioning to a completely new position would be on full display yet again, as he worked his way onto three NFL mini-camps: first the Oakland Raiders, followed by the Detroit Lions and finally the Atlanta Falcons, with the Falcons deciding to sign the undrafted Graham to a spot on their practice squad. 

    “Jaeden has an incredible story of perseverance,” Rawlings said. “[Graham] never once complained about not playing on defense, or switching to take on an entirely new position at ground zero. The easy thing to do in Jaeden’s situation would have been to just show up and have the days pass by until his playing days came to a close. Instead, he attacked each day with an enthusiastic attitude backed by truly wanting to be a difference maker for Team 145. You certainly do not become an All-Ivy and NFL tight end in one season out of luck.”

    Where are they now?

    When the 2018 NFL season rolled around, Oluokun — whom Falcons columnists did not expect to be anything more than a special teams contributor — suddenly assumed a starting role at middle linebacker after an injury to Atlanta’s Pro-Bowl linebacker Deion Jones. Exceeding expectations for a sixth-round draft pick in his rookie year, Oluokun finished the season playing 525 snaps and led the team with 67 tackles and 31 run stops in the process.

    Graham did not see much action on the NFL stage in 2018, but in Week 11 of the 2019 season, Falcons starting tight end Austin Hooper was sidelined with a knee injury, opening the door for Graham. In his two weeks as the team’s starter, Graham collected five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, with Falcons veteran Jones healthy again, Oluokun saw his snap totals on defense sharply decrease, but he still finished his second season with 56 tackles, with 45 of them coming during the final eight games of the year.

    “[Graham and Oluokun] are incredible athletes, but they are where they are now with the Falcons because of who they are as people,” Rawlings said. “The effects of these two outstanding leaders, along with the rest of their class, continues to take shape within the Yale football program. Their efforts and sacrifices have set a standard of excellence that was crucial for Team 147’s journey and will continue to be for Team 148, 149 and so on.”

    With the 2020 NFL season underway, Oluokun is now the Falcons’ starting outside linebacker, while Graham continues to serve as the backup tight end. 

    Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu

  2. Yale Football: Rebuilding a Dynasty "One Game at a Time"

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    When the Yale football team arrived at JFK airport last Thursday, a visage of 65 towering men wearing coats and ties, a sense of readiness pervaded the atmosphere. For the players, it was an unusual setting: rather than cramped on a dingy bus, rolling up and down the East Coast, they found themselves about to embark on the team’s first cross-country journey in recent memory.

    Their plane was set to arrive in Santa Maria, Calif., in mere hours. Upon landing, they would travel some 30 miles north to San Luis Obispo, where they would set up camp in preparation for their Saturday match against the Cal Poly Mustangs. The players were steeped in something of Yale history: in the team’s illustrious 141-year arc, it was just the third time the Bulldogs would face a squad in the Golden State.

    For this group of Elis, however, institutional memory did not provide the best sendoff. With last season’s dismal 2–8 finish fresh in mind, a sense of uncertainty toward the next few days seemed apropos. Yet the players crowded around the airport gate seemed unfettered, wearing confident smiles and relaxed postures as they prepared to board the plane.

    Indeed, the opportunity to take on a nationally ranked football squad, to announce Yale’s rebuilding efforts to the Ivy League and to the country at large, was much cause for excitement. Because for the 2013 Bulldogs, this weekend represented far more than a sunny departure from New Haven’s chilly, grey October — rather, it presented the chance for the team to redeem the missteps of years past, to put to the test head coach Tony Reno’s master plan.


    The Bulldogs’ presence in JFK that Thursday afternoon may seem a novel sight today, but it wasn’t that long ago that Yale football players were travel veterans, often crisscrossing the nation to battle — and defeat — college football’s most prominent teams.

    With 27 national championships, and as alma mater of the “Father of American Football,” Walter Camp, Yale has more total wins than any school not named Michigan. But as newer programs have picked up speed over the last decades, Yale has lagged behind: the team now stands mired in a six-game losing streak to Harvard, attempting to claw back to respectability after a mere two wins last season. Home games are routinely played in front of an audience of 50,000 empty seats, with many Yalies proud to tell you they’ve never been to the Yale Bowl.

    But early this summer, hints abounded that the 2013 season could signal a turning point. Tony Reno, hired as head coach in January 2012, used the offseason to institute a sweeping set of changes to the team, both in playbook and spirit. And so far, it’s working: using a brand new no-huddle offense — a strategy to quicken the Bulldogs’ tempo and wear down opponents — Yale secured a win in its season opener at Colgate, following suit with a 15-point victory over Cornell.

    For Reno, however, these victories are rooted not just in better execution of plays, but also a change in team culture. The Cal Poly game represented a chance, in Reno’s words, for the team to bond, to put to the test the emphasis on camaraderie he’s been attempting to cultivate within his players.

    Throughout the trip, this emphasis was evident. During those short moments of downtime, players prodded each other for advice on their fantasy football teams, chided teammates for attempting to catch up on schoolwork, and enjoyed the California sunshine while swimming in the hotel pool. Even with this general sense of ease, however, Reno was quick to reassert the importance of the journey at hand, encouraging his players to adopt a “business trip” mentality for the days ahead.

    Under Reno’s careful eye, each day was structured by the minute, beginning with 8:00 a.m. staff meetings and ending with a strictly observed bed check at 10:00 p.m. On game day, players departed for Cal Poly dressed in coat and tie, with kickers and punters expected on the field first — at 12:24 p.m., to be exact.

    Nobody strayed from the plan.

    “It’s a new era, I guess you could say,” said defensive tackle Jeff Schmittgens ’15 with a smile.


    On Friday, instead of completing their final pregame practice at Cal Poly’s stadium, Coach Reno chose to hold the first half of the walkthrough in a less obvious venue — the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, palm trees and a bright yellow Denny’s sign, the team ran plays in helmets and jerseys, far from the potentially wandering eyes of the Cal Poly coaching staff.

    Though the location itself was atypical, Friday’s practice was emblematic of Reno’s larger coaching philosophy: sharpening Yale’s competitive advantage, even if it means practicing alongside a handful of hotel guests’ cars. These new spins on practice strategy perhaps stem from his age: at just 38, Reno is the second-youngest coach in the Ivy League, allowing him to rethink a system to which more senior coaches may feel inevitably married.

    But Reno’s greatest talent might be found not in his ability to design masterful plays, but rather, in his ability to recruit the players who carry them out.

    For Reno, Saturday’s game readily fulfilled this reputation. Victor Egu ’17, one of Reno’s key recruits who spurned offers from Berkeley, Oregon and Notre Dame to play for the Bulldogs, stunted the Mustangs’ efforts at one of the game’s most crucial moments. With 11:03 left in the game, following an interception from Yale quarterback Hank Furman ’14, Egu sacked Cal Poly’s quarterback from behind, preventing the Mustangs from scoring off of Yale’s blunder.

    But it was safety Cole Champion ’16, part of Reno’s first recruiting class, who especially made his presence felt on Saturday.

    According to Reno, Cole had “never played safety before in his life until he came [to Yale].” But when pitted against the Mustangs, Cole rose to the occasion, leading all players with fourteen tackles. He also had a hand in three Cal Poly turnovers: a fumble recovery where he alertly dove on a poor pitch from Cal Poly’s quarterback, an interception cutting short a Cal Poly drive, and a second interception that halted the Mustangs’ last gasp and effectively clinched the win for the Bulldogs.

    Egu’s and Champion’s efforts exemplify well the extent of Reno’s recruiting prowess. Reno’s personal recruits, however, were not the only players to turn in game-changing performances, pointing to another facet in the team’s overall rebuilding phase: Reno’s ability to further mold, and form relationships with, players who came to Yale under the auspices of Tom Williams.

    “One more year of the new coaching staff has given us the opportunity to buy into Coach Reno’s system,” Schmittgens said. “One more year of familiarity with the program, bringing in a lot of good underclassmen to build the program — that has definitely brightened the outlook of where we’re at right now.”

    It’s an attitude that was clearly in force on that crisp California Saturday. Upperclassmen stood tall alongside Reno’s handpicked players, finally comfortable with the new staff’s style after a full year of practice. Juniors and seniors contributed big plays on both sides of the ball, and in the fourth quarter, when every play’s importance is magnified, the veterans stepped up to the challenge.

    With less than nine minutes left in the game, the Cal Poly faithful were rallying one last time, standing and screaming at full volume. The mercury showed a temperature well above 80 degrees, not including the effects of playing football in full pads. And Yale faced a crucial third down, deep in their own territory, clinging to a seven-point lead.

    Furman remained unfazed. He rolled left, pump faked a throw, and then launched a beautiful rainbow deep downfield, where wideout Deon Randall ’15 managed to settle under it. The crowd was silenced. Any remaining doubts about the Bulldogs’ newfound resolve was quashed a few plays later, when Furman converted a third down into a touchdown by way of a diving Chris Smith ’14. Yale fans erupted, and the raucous cheers of the coaching staff rang clearly, penetrating even the walls of the insulated press box.

    For the parents, relatives and supporters, all wearing white shirts commemorating the game, the final score reflected a crossroads for Yale football. At 24–10, it was a satisfying outcome for the Bulldogs’ first pilgrimage in recent memory — and perhaps one unexpected, too. Celebrations were certainly in order, and even Reno allowed a smile to crack through his typically stoic demeanor.

    Undergirding the excitement, however, was a more sobering realization: for this group of players, moving forward, Yale’s legacy depends on much more than one California victory.

    “We celebrated on Saturday night, but we were back focused on Dartmouth on Sunday,” offensive lineman Luke Longinotti ’16 said. “It was obviously a signature win, but 10 years from now this single game isn’t going to be what turned Yale football around.”

    Furman had a slightly different spin. “We haven’t been good in a while, so everyone is in good spirits,” he said bluntly. “We’re at the point where we decide if we want to be a good team or a great team.”


    After a long flight, every single person that stumbled into JFK Airport at 4 in the morning was ready to get back to campus and sleep. As the team waited for their bags near baggage carousel #4, however, Reno called everybody together for one last huddle. He delved into the team’s schedule for Sunday — which included trekking back to Smilow Field Center within six hours of returning to campus — and then briefly complimented the offense and the defense. But his focus quickly shifted to the team’s next game against the Big Green, a nod to his personal mantra of taking victory “one game at a time.”

    “Dartmouth is a very good football team. Their backs are against the wall, and they need to win this game,” Reno asserted. “This is a must-win game for us.”

    Reno’s words took on a new significance, as they resounded with a team now wholly familiar with and confident in his vision as a coach. He signaled to captain Beau Palin ’14 to gather the team for the weekend’s final huddle, and stepped back as the players drew together. A sense of anticipation coursed throughout, and any semblance of celebration was long gone — the players instead heeded their coach’s advice, turning their eyes fully to next Saturday’s challenge. One game at a time, indeed.