COLLEGE PARK — After Maryland tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo ran the fastest 40-yard dash among his position group at the NFL scouting combine earlier this month, he was mad.
The time of 4.52 seconds ranked in the 94th percentile among tight ends since 2011, according to scouting database MockDraftable, but Okonkwo said he wanted to be faster — especially after running a 4.40 during training. Still, his performance generated much-needed buzz heading into the NFL draft on April 28 in Las Vegas.
On Wednesday, Okonkwo continued to show off his skills, participating in Maryland’s Pro Day with his fellow draft-eligible teammates in front of 45 scouts from 29 NFL teams. For the senior, it’s a chance to turn a childhood dream into a reality.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 7,” the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Okonkwo said. “It’s been my No. 1 goal my entire life.”
His journey at Maryland took its share of twists and turns before a breakout senior season. As college football grappled with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Okonkwo missed the season because of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. He returned this past season, becoming one of junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa’s go-to targets after receivers Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones went down with season-ending injuries.
Okonkwo caught 52 passes for 447 yards and a team-best five touchdowns, but more importantly, he showcased his versatility as a receiver and a blocker, which he feels can translate smoothly to the NFL level.
“I can play every role,” he said. “I can play out wide, the slot, the backfield. I can cause mismatches, and I can block.”
Maryland coach Mike Locksley said the team runs a pro-style offense that allowed Okonkwo to be an inline blocker and a detached receiver.
“Our offensive system is very versatile, which allows the players to showcase things the NFL is looking for,” Lockley said.
Okonkwo said he didn’t realize how much Maryland prepared him until he went to the East-West Shrine Game in February and felt he was a step ahead of the other tight ends. While working with the Indianapolis Colts staff, Okonkwo said the coaches used the same terminology he learned at Maryland.
Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen, a former Penn State defensive lineman and general manager for the Detroit Lions, said Okonkwo still has room to grow after improving during his career, particularly as a senior.
“If somebody drafts him, they’re going to have to be a little patient with him, but I think he has something to work with,” Millen said.
Okonkwo, who could be drafted as high as the third round, said he has had in-depth conversations with the Ravens, New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Tennessee Titans. Playing with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is something he would cherish.
“You don’t get to see that many extraordinary talents like that,” he said.
Cross looking for opportunity — perhaps close to home
Okonkwo was joined at Maryland’s Pro Day by defensive backs Nick Cross and Jordan Mosley, running back Tayon-Fleet Davis, defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu, kicker Joseph Petrino and defensive lineman Lawtez Rogers.
Just like Okonkwo, Cross garnered attention at the NFL scouting combine, recording the fastest 40-yard dash (4.34) among safeties.
A three-time All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention, Cross led the Terps last season with three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 13 games. The junior also finished second on the team in tackles (66), including 3 ½ for loss, while adding three sacks and four pass breakups.
A Bowie native, Cross grew up a Washington Commanders fan and said it would feel good playing for his childhood team alongside his former DeMatha teammate Chase Young. However, he wouldn’t mind any NFL team that gives him an opportunity.
“Only a select few people get the opportunity to play in the NFL,” he said.
Cross, a projected third-round pick who could climb into the second round, said he has spoken with a handful of teams, including the Ravens, who he met with at the combine. Millen thinks the 6-foot, 212-pound Cross has the speed, size and agility to be productive at the NFL level.
“He’s got a good skill set for the safety spot,” Millen said. “The thing with safeties is you have to understand angles. And he does a pretty good job of that. I think he’s a pretty good player.”
Maryland’s Pro Day also featured a few other local players, such as Towson wide receiver Caleb Smith and offensive linemen Demarcus Gilmore and Andrew Garnett, as well as Delaware defensive back Nijuel Hill (Calvert Hall).
From Terps lacrosse standout to the NFL?
Former Maryland men’s lacrosse star turned Ferris State quarterback Jared Bernhardt performed wide receiver and defensive back drills, hoping a team gives him a shot after leading the Bulldogs to an NCAA Division II national championship.
When the 6-1, 195-pound Bernhardt was asked what position he preferred the most, he said “I’m open to anything.”
“It was a cool feeling coming back to College Park,” he said. “I would definitely like to do better. I try to hold myself to a high standard.”
After a five-year lacrosse career in which he became the Terps’ all-time record holder in career points (290) and goals (202), Bernhardt transferred to Ferris State, where he rushed for 1,421 yards and 26 touchdowns and completed 70.7% of his passes for 1,322 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions to be nominated for the 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy as the Division II College Football Player of the Year.
Bernhardt said the transition from lacrosse to football hasn’t been easy, as he had to watch a ton of film while seeking guidance from former New England Patriots receiver Chris Hogan, who played lacrosse for three years at Penn State before playing football at Football Championship Subdivision-level Monmouth.
Even though Bernhardt hasn’t touched a lacrosse stick in a while, he didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to the sport. But for now, he’s focused on football.
“I want to win no matter the cost,” he said. “Help out any way possible. It doesn’t matter if I play.”