Wearing a white SMU t-shirt with black shorts and football gloves, Daniel Akinkunmi stepped up to perform a drill. The 6-foot-4 lineman lined up against an athlete a couple years older than Akinkunmi and prepared for the drill. Akinkunmi backed up a little and held his hands out in a blocking stance. The defender rushed towards him and tried to spin to Akinkunmi’s left side.
It was unsuccessful and as the whistle blew, Akinkunmi jogged out of the way with a glimmer of a smile.
Those in attendance at SMU’s indoor football practice facility at the Mustangs’ football camp, including recruits from different classes from all over, high school coaches and college coaches, clapped and gave a bigger response than many of the other reps earned.
Once the drills were done and Akinkunmi continued to win his reps, a coach from Washington State immediately went up to the lineman, shook his head and said, “Congratulations we’re going to offer you your first college scholarship offer.”
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The camp was June 4. Nine months prior, Akinkunmi had never played football.
But then Akinkunmi, who lives in Harworth, England, began attending the NFL Academy in London. Founded in 2019, the NFL Academy was created by the NFL for student athletes ages 16-19 to develop their football skills with hopes of getting the opportunity to play college football in the United States. Akinkunmi was one of 85 players recruited by the NFL Academy after graduating from high school at 16-years-old which is typical in England.
“September is when I first got introduced to the game,” Akinkunmi told the Athens Banner-Herald. “Beforehand, I loved basketball. I realized how hard it would be for a 250, 260-pound kid from the U.K. to make a career in basketball. I was never really taught how to dribble well. I was going to have to cut 50 pounds and really dedicate myself to basketball, or switch sports. As soon as I gave football my all, I fell in love with it.”
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First trip to America
In March, Akinkunmi and a small group of players from the academy flew to Washington, D.C. with a good bit of events on the itinerary. First was to go on unofficial visits to several schools around the area, like Maryland and Penn State.
This was Akinkunmi’s first time traveling outside of Europe.
“Maryland and Penn State were especially great,” he said. “At Penn State, we got to see them training and just felt the energy. It made you want to work harder because you’re there and seeing it in person. I could see myself being there in front of the fans, practicing hard and competing day in and day out.”
After the college visits, the group attended the Under Armour Next camp in Baltimore. With some of the top talent from across the country, Akinkunmi was at a disadvantage. He didn’t have the years of experience like the players in America did. He got beat on the first rep.
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By the end of the camp though, he learned on the job just by being around four and five-star recruits and coaches.
“I wasn’t ready for the intensity,” Akinkunmi said. “My second rep I tried my best. Might not have had the right technique, but I got the guy on the ground. That week prepared me for (the camps in Texas) because it showed me what I needed to work on back home.”
Back in England, Akinkunmi had a newfound motivation and understanding of the work it would take to get where he needed to be. He went back to the three-hour-long train rides to and from the Academy. He travels four days a week, and wakes up around 4 a.m., sometimes getting just five hours of sleep.
The cost of doing what he loves is high — about $1,200 a month.
“My parents split it,” Akinkunmi said. “My mom and stepfather pay for two months and my dad pays for my food and then it switches back and forth. I’m so grateful to all of them for sacrificing so much to do what I love.”
Making it all worth it
Back at the camp at SMU in early June, the coaches at WSU were the first to give Akinkunmi an offer. The first person he told was his offensive line coach Gavin Collins, who expressed how proud he was of Akinkunmi for putting in the work.
The following day, Akinkunmi attended a camp at TCU, where he again performed well in front of even more coaches and recruiters.
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“Once one takes a shot, everybody else says ‘let’s take the shot,’” Akinkunmi said. “I think after the exposure from the first offer and that camp, and at the TCU camp, I had recruiters and coaches coming up to me. People knew who I was. A lot more coaches were watching.”
Akinkunmi and his fellow NFL Academy teammates went on an unofficial visit to North Texas, a school he’d been in contact with and was looking forward to seeing. He picked up an offer from the Mean Green while he was on his visit. Then the group went to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium before ending the day at Whataburger.
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The spectacle of Cowboys Stadium was exciting for Akinkunmi. While in Jerry World, Collins received a text from Arkansas offensive line coach Cody Kennedy asking for Akinkunmi to call him. Once they got to Whataburger, the offensive lineman called Kennedy.
Kennedy extended an offer to him and said they wanted to be the first SEC school to get their foot in the door.
“I cried after that,” Akinkunmi said. “To get an SEC offer after only having played for a couple months is amazing. I did cry a lot. I just praise God for it.”
Akinkunmi now has five offers and expects more to come soon. It was a successful trip for the talented lineman, proving his abilities and raw athleticism.
Now he’ll spend time back home continuing to workout, talk with coaches and build relationships with different programs.
“I don’t think I’ll be coming back to America this year, just because of how well I performed that week and how expensive it is,” Akinkunmi said. “I hope the ball keeps rolling.”
McClain Baxley is a recruiting reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald and the USA TODAY Network. Reach him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mcclainbaxley.